As We Spatially Separate We Must Also Stay Connected
The following letter was written by Bioneers board member and the Othering and Belonging Institute’s Director, john a. powell, on March 18, 2020. It was originally posted on the Othering and Belonging Institute’s website.
We hope you are staying healthy and safe during this period of uncertainty as governments around the world take dramatic and unprecedented measures to try to contain the pandemic currently disrupting life on our planet. As has been pointed out in many commentaries on the current situation, the pandemic exposes the inadequacies of our health care system in its ability to respond quickly, effectively, and without consideration to an individual’s insurance coverage, wealth, shelter, or legal status. Disparities in access to critical support services are never more apparent than in times of crisis.
The response to this crisis can easily slip into two opposing narratives. The first narrative is of a deep othering, and the second, of belonging. I am concerned about the language around the calls for social distancing and/or social isolation. There is certainly a public health need for physical distance. But this is not the same as social isolation. What is needed is social solidarity along with spatial separation. There have been more than a few stories stating that isolation comes with a different set of costs.
Before going into some of the things that are being done and not done, I want to thank all of you for what you have contributed and will likely contribute as the situation continues to evolve. Thank you for not simply caring about yourselves, your family, and friends, but for caring more broadly. A part of the challenge with this pandemic is that there are so many uncertainties. Some of this will change as we learn more. It would be helpful if we in the United States understood that we belong to a larger community and we need to learn from each other and share with each other. Despite these challenges, there are things we can do at the Institute. I will come back to some of these later. But first I’ll address what is happening, what is not happening, and what should be happening.
Temporary emergency measures like waiving testing costs for those who feel ill, paid leave from work, and placing moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs help cushion the impact of the current crisis on everyday people, especially those who are poor. But it is not enough to rely on the good will of employers or government officials to do what is required when a pandemic hits, especially when such measures are piecemeal, insufficient, and exclude many people.
The current situation also underlines the interconnectedness between all of us and our planet. It reveals, as we have been trying to show for many years, that when one person suffers, we all experience the effects of that suffering. We do belong to each other and to the earth. Now more than ever we see how it is in everyone’s best interest, including those who are more privileged, to ensure the well-being of all. Our collective health is only as strong as the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
As an institute working towards the transformation of our societies into places where all people belong, we [the Othering and Belonging Institute] have since our inception advocated that support mechanisms be built into our systems and structures so that there’s not even a question or debate as to whether people will receive care and protection when they need it most. While our immediate attention is focused on protecting those most at risk during the current pandemic, our larger, long term efforts remain to create structures that respond to the needs of all people facing dire circumstances, including forced migrants and refugees, people who are incarcerated, those without shelter, and yes, even those who have some privilege.
In the coming days and weeks, the Othering and Belonging Institute will periodically provide resources, analysis, or recommendations relating to the unfolding nature of this crisis and the response. For example, we are launching a set of maps showing where K-12 students in California who rely on free and reduced-price lunches reside, and another set of maps on seniors in poverty who, depending on the duration of this crisis, may be most acutely in need of nutritional support or access to food. We will also suggest things those of us who are better off, but still not out of the woods, can do for ourselves and others.
Before ending, I want to suggest some things that might be useful for all of us to consider. Our lives and routines have been disrupted, and for how long this will continue, we don’t know. This is likely to come with considerable stress and anxiety, even if we do not get sick. What we do know is that it is important to have habits and routines that are healthy and help us connect to each other. There are things we can do alone like walking or meditation, but we also need contact with others and to engage in activities to take our minds off the constant dread. In short, we need each other. Examples of activities where we can maintain physical distance, but not isolation, could include video chats to discuss good books, movies, and joyous events. There may be large, open physical spaces where people can interact from a distance. For example, this Friday at 6:15pm, residents in my neighborhood have agreed to step out onto our respective porches to say hello. Another idea could be to organize a virtual movie date with your friends.
While self care is important, it is not enough. We need to care for each other. I know we all agree on this principle, but how do we put it into practice? What are some habits and routines that work for you? What can the Othering & Belonging Institute do to facilitate those practices? What do you need to make them happen? We’d love to hear your ideas, stories, and learn about your contributions.
Let’s all do what we can to stay safe, healthy, and take care of each other.
john a. powell
Director, Othering & Belonging Institute
Professor of Law, UC Berkeley