Some things in life are difficult to believe. Covid-19 is one of them. Talk of a pandemic lingering tiresomely on and on, with views of inactivity on building sites and streets bereft of cars being commonplace – these were ideas we had only in our ‘I’m a filmmaker’ moments. Our behaviour changed to conform with Government instructions and guidelines until some of them gave up and said ‘do as you please but take care of yourselves and others’.
Governments have moments of impotence in a pandemic. So do we all.
One behaviour that we might have said was unthinkable for human beings with their need to socialise and touch is distancing. Personally I like a hug, a handshake, a peck on the cheek. I want to feel the gestures of the person I am talking to, to inhale their breath, to exchange eye contacts that say more than ‘do you buy what I am saying?’ Personal contacts are always social however commercially they are pivoted.
We’ve all had to learn Zoom, have succeeded in making substitute systems for our normal coffee, lunch or even simple over-the-table discussions. Not quite, perhaps. The awkward, shuffling silence while the straggler participants are being waited for and the speakers are on screen and mike, need a solution to the embarrassingly repeated apologies from those who arrived on time – how strange that it should be that way round. I thought the tardy apologised.
For all that, and despite the discovery of the versatility of WhatsApp, the politeness demands of ‘presence’ are something I miss with an ache, and one that is difficult to locate between head and heart. The idea of keeping my distance is redolent of class divides and early childhood presentation over tea to Important Visitors most of whom expedited the departure of their young acquaintances with a silver coin. The greater its value, the faster the flight.
The truth of the cause of our pandemic is never mentioned. It implies valuing life as less than we want to and is politically incorrect. Since we are battling, with huge success, to prolong life to the point where we achieve immortality, any suggestion of overpopulation is thought rude and unacceptable. Except, though, we must face it. The planet can handle about five million, more or less adequately. It cannot manage the present seven except with a lot of threats, pandemics, economic switchbacks and health needs we didn’t anticipate even five years ago.
But it is growing fast and, in less than fifty years, will reach nine or ten billion. Can we cope with that? Possibly, but certainly not comfortably, and only by dedicating massive amounts of our resources to the consequences of overcrowding. Already overcrowding is leading to distancing, initially for Covid-19 virus avoidance, but some are already thinking for ‘flu and other virus avoidance too. Some will mask forever. Permanent distancing in urban societies with very tall skyscrapers presents a challenge of social interaction we have yet to resolve.
Compare individuals with countries. Worldwide, globalisation is receding when it ought to be increasing. It has had some failures – all due to the process by which national sovereignties supersede international organisations. Hence the problems with, say, the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a time when all countries should be helping this organisation to do its job. Instead the United States has withdrawn and other countries are questioning the WHO’s value. How absurd is that?
Individuals naturally socialise, chatter, read each other’s feelings, listen to the wise people they come across. Distancing prevents them from doing that in the way they are used to. They can do it online but the disciplines of good communication don’t apply if all you are doing is watching a webinar. Certainly you can have a one-on-one Zoom or WhatsApp but it takes time to get people to use these for serious discussions. They are seen more as family calls or news updates.
So distancing is forcing a separation of people at precisely the time when their collective views are most needed. Not much good if you can hold a protest march but not join together in discussing the solutions to the issues you are raising. We may have ‘distancing’ for a long time. It will pay us to learn how to use the internet for social but serious chats about the volatile world.
In ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’, Eva Peron sings a plaintiff song. The last lines of each verse are:
‘I kept my promise, Don’t keep your distance’. Millions of people are struggling to keep the world going, to keep the promise of better years ahead. As they succeed in doing so we should keep our part of the bargain, not to keep our distance. If we are prevented from fulfilling that physically we should do all we can to fulfil it through the new media available to us.
Too much ‘distance’ for too long will drive us back to a cave mentality.
“Don’t keep your distance.”