Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic: The privilege of social distancing

Mai Pedersen
BSc Anthropology

When the coronavirus first broke out, what really struck me was the amount of panic that spread across the world and how varied the initial approaches to tackling the coronavirus were. I was out dining with my friends in London when the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced that the country’s borders would shut the following day. There I was in a country far from locking down – at least at that point – watching my home country go into complete lockdown. And during the following months, the management of the crisis has taken place with completely different approaches all around the world. Nevertheless, one thing countries appear to have in common is how public space has been managed. In Denmark, which I hasted back to and have spent my lockdown days in, this has resulted in floor markings defining where to queue in supermarkets and any store in general, as they all slowly opened; being told to keep 4 steps apart on escalators; suggestions on seat distribution in trains; as well as walking on the right hand side in order to avoid coming face-to-face with anyone while on stairs or pavements. In most countries, similar restrictions have been implemented in order to deter people from getting too close to one another – and with quarantines and lockdown in the mix moving around freely has, in a way, become a luxury these days; through these restrictions the government has created a new agency for movement in the landscape. 

Markings from a Danish supermarket, ensuring people keep a distance when queueing up to pay. The text reads “Hold afstand” – or in English “Keep your distance.” Photo by Mai Pedersen

The question is then: does it change the way we interact with other people? When I walk around the streets or in the supermarket, I still walk in big circles around people and I am appalled by those who do not see the need to do so, but will rather squeeze their way through to get past people. As a result of this, the distances between people create new social contexts for all of us. As we adhere to these rules, new forms of the famous anthropological us and them occur; those who adhere to the rules and those who, for either reason, choose not to. While this new restrictive space, and the places arising within it, undoubtedly qualifies as a Western, capitalist space (Tilley, 1994), I think it is important to highlight one of the ways in which it is not; it is not infinitely open, rather, the exact opposite. It increases control – of people and the virus. Furthermore, it doubles as a place to both act and think (Tilley, 1994). You act in a certain way in response to the restrictions and your actions more so than ever force you to think – about how the pandemic has changed something as simple as a shopping trip. And, in theory, there is no sanctioning if you do not adhere to the restrictions; at least not imposed by the government itself. But there might be social and health consequences – to you, or to the people whose way you pass. Now, following that “space allows movement, place is pause” (Taun in Tilley, 1994, p. 14) this means that, by limiting movement, the government creates small places for us within these new spaces where we pause until we can move again; and if “place, at a basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power” (Cresswell, 2004, p.12) then space is inevitably related to power and its execution (Foucault, 1991). 

As I see it, this is a way for the government to manifest their power, to underline that they are in control. They control people’s movement, and while it is for health reasons, and in theory a safe, reasonable decision, am I made to believe so? Currently, the government organises the way in which most information is imparted. Often, in strong collaboration with the health care authorities, they regulate the information we as citizens receive. So, to follow Foucault, the authorities through their power are able to manifest knowledge which becomes truth (Foucault, 1997). For a very long time, people were unable to question it; since while authorities produce this knowledge, they reproduce their power. Governmental leaders seem to get increased support during national (or in this case, international) crises1; while driven by fear, we as humans tend to turn to someone with status. Now, from lived experience, while we know that it is sensible to adhere to social distancing measures, given that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, it is also important to keep in mind that social distancing is a privilege; one not achievable to all people. 

The markings indicates which side of the stairs to stick to so as not to face another person. The English translation, below the Danish, says “Walk on the right side. Keep your distance.” Photo by Mai Pedersen

This pandemic, and the power relations revealed as a result of its ravaging, underlines how some population groups are more severely affected by it than others. To take an example from the USA: Among those aged 65 and above, 27% of white people were at high risk of becoming ill if catching the virus, while that applied to 33% of black people and 42% of American Indians. Similar statistics apply to those of low-income, where 40% aged above 65 are at higher risk, while that only applies to 24% of people with higher income (Raifman and Raifman, 2020). People of colour (POC), or those of low-income households (and these often collide) are thus more likely to become ill due to COVID-19, as compared to white people or those of high-income households. Evidence suggests that there is a strong causal connection between income inequality and poor health (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2015) and considering that people with darker skin report an overall poorer health (Perreria and Telles, 2014) it is clear how these population groups are more exposed to health and social disparities; hence, it should really come as no surprise that these, too, apply to the COVID-19 disease. Furthermore, people from these high-risk categories are more likely to have jobs in essential businesses (BLS Reports, 2016), meaning that they were not forced to stay at home during the non-essential business closures, and as a consequence hereof, are less able to socially distance – and are further affected by those who choose not to do so – or self-quarantine in the case of experiencing symptoms. In addition, they are more likely to live in crowded conditions or multi-generational households (Adamkiewicz et al., 2011) – so apart from increased exposure to the disease, this underlines how architecture and the movement through and in this, shapes our lived realities, and finally, our chances of survival. High-risk category persons living in these conditions will lose their job if not showing up and thus, cannot quarantine and are less likely to be able to stay socially distant; hence, income and race disparities must be considered when creating restrictions that require people to do things they might not be able to. 

Comparing the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Denmark and the USA is done to highlight two things; the restrictions imposed by the government is taken from Denmark, as I cannot experience them anywhere else right now and first-hand experience allows me to illustrate how our movement is being put into control. Secondly, restrictions might exist to some degree in the USA, but with people not following them, it puts people, already at risk, at a higher risk of suffering severe illness if getting COVID 19. Combining these two examples proves how social distancing is detrimental for survival, but also dependent on the management by your government and the behaviour of your fellow citizens. The Danish government shut down quickly and early providing massive economic support for business in order to keep as much shut as possible and both Europeans and Danes are ultimately satisfied with how this has worked out2. Yet the government in place, being social democrats, has still received general critique from the right wing3 and one very important critique from the far left: if the virus were to spread in the crowded refugee camps things would go terribly wrong. They cannot impose their power into this space if there is not enough room for the rules to be adhered to. So even here, where social distancing can be upheld in a lot of places, it is still not possible everywhere. 

Suggestions on how to keep distant when seated in the Danish overground. The text on the printed feet means “Safe travels” and “Please sit here.” Photo by Mai Pedersen

Ultimately it comes down to this: it is one thing to express your power, how you use it is another. Social distancing, along with quarantining, is a privilege in our society; however, the conditions to do so should be a right to everyone. When I walk around people in big circles, I do it not only to protect myself from this disease but also to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. It’s not enough – for any government – to merely create restrictions – they need to ensure that sufficient social benefits are put in place so that anyone can follow them.

1 rise-during-lockdown

2 danskerne-er-overvejende-enige?publisherId=10528407&releaseId=13594804 

3 genaabning/?ctxref=ext

Title image: When everyone is staying to the right, we are never standing (or in this case, walking) face to face – ultimately lowering the risk of infecting one another. Photo by Mai Pedersen

  1. Adamkiewicz, G., Zota, A.R., Fabian, M.P., Chahine, T., Julien, R., Spengler, J.D. and Levy, J.I.  2011. Moving environmental justice indoors: understanding structural influences on residential  exposure patterns in low-income communities. American Journal of Public Health, 101(S1), pp. S238- S245.
  2. BLS Reports. 2016. A profile of the working poor. [online] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [Accessed 7 July 2020]. 
  3. BLS Reports. 2018. A Profile Of The Working Poor, 2016. [online] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [Accessed 7 July 2020].
  4. Holroyd, M. and Chadwick, L. 2020. Coronavirus: Why did European leaders’ approval ratings rise during lockdown?. [online] Euronews. [Accessed 5 July 2020]. 
  5. Cresswell, T. 2004. Place: A short introduction. John Wiley & Sons. 
  6. Foucault, M. 1991. Space, knowledge and power. In: P. Rabinow, ed. 1991. The Foucault Effect. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  7. Foucault, M. 1997. Power, Right, Truth. In: R. E. Goodin and P. Pettit, eds. Contemporary Political  Philosophy: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.
  8. Perreira, K. and Telles, E. 2014. The color of health: Skin color, ethnoracial classification, and  discrimination in the health of Latin Americans. Social Science & Medicine, 116, pp. 241-250.
  9. Pickett, K. and Wilkinson, R. 2015. Income inequality and health: A causal review. Social Science &  Medicine, 128, pp. 316-326.
  10. Tilley, C.Y. 1994. Space, place, landscape and perception: phenomenological perspectives. In:  Tilley, C.Y., ed. A phenomenology of landscape: places, paths and monuments. Berg: Oxford.
  11. Ritzau, 2020. Venstre og Radikale kritiserer plan for genåbning. [online] Finans. [Accessed 7 July 2020].
  12. Raifman, M. and Raifman, J. 2020. Disparities in the Population at Risk of Severe Illness From  COVID-19 by Race/Ethnicity and Income. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 59(1), pp. 137−139. 
  13. YouGov Denmark. 2020. Europæerne synes Danmark har håndteret COVID-19 godt… og danskerne  er overvejende enige. [online] [Accessed 6 July 2020].

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