SARS-CoV-2: out of touch, out of breath
It is difficult to account for how the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is experienced, chiefly because there is no one universal experience to be identified. Exposure to the virus is unequal. The aptly called “White-Collar Quarantine” implies that the ability to shelter-in-place at home is still a relative privilege, from where the pandemic appears to be playing out as “an arm’s-length spectacle, experienced through a numbing drip feed of media updates on our national prognoses.” Amongst those at home, experiences of the pandemic are likely equally incomparable; depending on living situations, care responsibilities and/or risk factors. The uncertainties concerning the virus itself do not remain abstract: they are reflected in the uncertainty concerning how one may experience the illness Covid-19. Experiences are often incomparable, ranging from respiratory symptoms, to swollen toes, to a serious inflammatory disease that emerges weeks after initial infection. Felicity Callard has questioned the very category of ‘mild illness’ that is generally used to describe Covid-19 cases that do not require hospitalisation. Phrases such as “‘mild symptoms’, ‘mild illness’, ‘reaction’, ‘a recovery of 14 days’ […] point to an imagined punctual event with a fixed duration and a clear end”. Unfortunately, as Callard shows, many ‘mild’ cases take a protracted and uncertain course, disrupting the “usual sense of agency and phenomenological fit with the world” amongst those afflicted.
Although not universal, I believe the loss of agency and phenomenological fit/familiarity with the world is an aspect of experience in this pandemic that is widely shared, and one that geographical theory can help illuminate.
Bernd Scherer has highlighted the effect SARS-CoV-2 has had on our everyday experience:
We no longer touch door handles, avoid contact with the banister, avoid other passers-by on the street, and cringe when a friend approaches us with open arms. In short, we are alienating ourselves somewhat from our environment by restricting sensory encounters. […] The world as we know it is suddenly put on hold. Since we have not yet internalized the logic of this world, and our senses and reactions have not yet developed routines in the form of everyday behavior, we often react with hesitation, with irritation. This creates a world ‘in limbo.’
In order to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, one of the first recommendations the UK Government put forward to the public was to wash one’s hands more frequently and for at least 20 seconds. Upon hearing this advice, we react with hesitation: How many things have we touched today? How many others have touched those same objects and surfaces? Hesitation turns to irritation as we realise we have involuntarily touched our own face for the dozenth time today; another habit we should drop.
Slowly, we internalise this tactile logic of the world. Where proximity once meant the physical distance between objects, which we can see, the proximity we are now asked to focus on is invisible. It requires us to trace our tactile habits and those of others. Touch, not vision, is our guide in navigating this world. A number of UK Government guidelines advertising these new measures appear to ease our transition into this new world, giving us visual cues for the invisible traces our touches leave behind.
Viruses can live on some surfaces for hours. When you get home or into work, make sure to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitiser. #SafeHands https://t.co/ZYYFNxwJXf pic.twitter.com/Ep9qShF26d— NHS England and NHS Improvement (@NHSEngland) March 17, 2020
Viruses can live on some surfaces for hours. When you eat or handle food, it’s important to make sure you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitiser. #SafeHands https://t.co/ZYYFNxwJXf pic.twitter.com/MGFyEx0T5k— NHS England and NHS Improvement (@NHSEngland) March 18, 2020
In their investigation into the tactile topologies of Contagion, the 2011 film directed by Steven Soderbergh, Deborah Dixon and John Paul Jones III discuss how touch is pathologised in a similar fashion. The tactile proximity between visually distant objects is produced in the film through “the lingering touch of the camera on infected objects”, themselves “become alluring objects of fascination and repulsion.”
Strikingly, this proximity is “most notably ‘felt’ when the screen has flickered off, and the audience has stood up to leave the cinema. Bodies are leveraged out of seats and directed to the exit where light now filters in, allowing the eye to focus on the handle. It is there to be grasped, but the audience is now very much aware that the metal meeting the flesh of the hand has been touched by many other hands, each of which has in turn touched many mouths.” Although one’s ability to see is restored as the light comes on, one’s sense of touch looms larger.
The study of Contagion’s tactile topologies serves as a critique of ocularcentrism, wherein sight is privileged as our primary mode of access to the world around us. Where ocularcentrism suggests that the viewer and subject stands at a distance, separated from their object, the appreciation of touch reveals that such distance is illusionary. Time and space function differently in the tactile world, as visually distant objects are drawn together through encounters across time.
As Dixon and Jones elegantly point out, to “touch in this [pandemic, MH] environment is to position the skin not as a surficial, or exterior, container to the flesh, but as a porous membrane, producing its own complex geographies fuelled by a world of distributed objects and the two to three thousand hand-to-face touches we make each day.” In touch, “the distinctions between ‘out there’, ‘on that’ and ‘in me’ dissolve” as we continuously and unconsciously transgress these dichotomies.
You should only be leaving your home for essentials like food or medicine, or to exercise. When you do, it’s important to keep your distance from others — stay at least two metres (about three steps) apart from other people.— NHS England and NHS Improvement (@NHSEngland) April 14, 2020
🚶🏼♂️ 🚶🏾♀️ 🚶🏼♂️ #KeepYourDistance pic.twitter.com/b2y3Yr0ytJ
A later guidance issued by the UK Government concerned the need to socially distance. Here, vision appears to be our guide once more, as we are asked to keep a distance of two meters from one another.
Following this rule, a new logic is internalised both habitually and materially, as physical markers on the ground make us hesitate. Yet these markers and visualisations of social distancing are proxies, similar to the luminescent touch described above, which introduce us into another logic governing our world, the logic of breath. Two meters is an arbitrary visual distance beyond which infection with the virus through our lungs is deemed unlikely. As Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder note, “with every breath we take, we expose our lungs to the outside world, regardless of all the barriers we have erected between the environment and ourselves.” Both in breath and in touch, the distinctions between ‘out there’ and ‘in me’ dissolve.
Marijn Nieuwenhuis draws the dimensions of breath and touch together by “analysing the porous geography of flesh and skin”. He critically evaluates the modern “disembodied framework” in which human skin is “interpreted as a border zone that requires protection to constitute and separate a fragile inside from a supposedly dangerous outside, the self from the Other.” According to Nieuwenhuis, the more ancient idea of breathing skin “channels, nurtures and even blurs the boundaries of the body with what (and who) resides outside of it”, challenging “the myth of an impermeable wholesome body and questions the idea of a stable and singular self.”
Touch and breath, in their transgression of dichotomies such as interior-exterior, follow the same logic as the larger concept of the anthropocene. The transmission of the virus through surfaces and air blurs boundaries between inside and outside on a sensory level. The fact that “there is no place to retreat, from where we can look at the earth, protected from the virus” evidences that there is no outside of human influence on Earth more generally. In experiencing this pandemic, we are out of touch with an old world that rested on the dichotomies of inside-outside, nature-culture. The pandemic has made palpable what remains inconspicuous in the face of global climate change: what is at stake is not a change in certain physical properties of the ‘outside world’–a 1.5 °C rise in global temperature is arbitrary in a similar way that 2 meters distance are–, but a change in the very fabric of our world, in which we are inextricably enmeshed with what was once deemed ‘out there’.
Ahmed, Sara, and Jackie Stacey, editors. Thinking through the Skin. Routledge, 2001.
Dixon, Deborah P., and John Paul Jones. ‘The Tactile Topologies of Contagion’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 40, no. 2, 2015, pp. 223–34. DOI:10/ggvqsf.
Hulme, Mike. ‘Is it Too Late (to Stop Dangerous Climate Change)? An Editorial.’ WIRES: Climate Change, 2020. DOI: 10.1002/wcc.619.
McCormack, Derek P. ‘The Circumstances of Post-Phenomenological Life Worlds’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 2–13. DOI:10/f967rp.
Nieuwenhuis, Marijn. ‘Porous Skin: Breathing through the Prism of the Holey Body’. Emotion, Space and Society, vol. 33, 2019. DOI:10/ggwsg5.