Covid: October 2020

We are in the throes of the Covid pandemic.

For the past six months we have had to learn to live in an ’emergency response’.

The virus is very much live and dangerous and people are dying from Covid.

Lockdown, shielding, school closures, working from home will protect us in the short-term. But these solutions may well present new problems and challenges further down the road.  

Keeping people apart is devastating personal relationships  – as well as the economy.

The sudden surge in working from home is creating a massive disruption to the city centre.  People are not venturing into cities – if they don’t have to. 

Now that many buildings are empty, associated retail and hospitality will struggle to survive.

All the shiny, glass buildings designed to house hundreds of people in an air-tight space look much less attractive places to work –  and to be. 

Once bustling, dynamic and busy with a flow of people the fear is that these places will become ghost towns.

Covid  sign in blue about mask wearing

This is a situation that has been thrust upon us and for which we are not prepared.

It is massive disruption to our daily life, to the spaces we inhabit and types of places that we normally take for granted.

Only when people can come back safely together again in the same space will our economies be able to grow.

But, learning to be ‘together’ as human beings, as family, as friends, colleagues, team members and classmates will also be a challenge.

‘Space’ is the key governmental response to Covid.

So far, against the spread of this unseen enemy it is the only weapon that works.  

That is: keeping your distance, avoiding others, reducing social contact.

This Covid response is creating see a radical shift in human behaviours. It is a field day in research for pscyhologists but it also gives designers a whole new way to think about how space works – or, can be made to work.

Because of Covid we now focus much more on our own body and how/where it moves.

But also, where we are allowed to go, and with whom.

So, everything that is/was such a part of our everyday life, such as hugging a friend, partner  dancing and sitting close are now forbidden experiences  – unless it is with someone in our ‘bubble’.

Our fear of the virus means that many of us now have a deep-set caution of others.

Whenever people come together they are normally wearing a mask. 

We just see half of their face.  

Are they smiling? Is it someone I know?  Is it someone I’d like to know? Anyone who is not wearing a mask stands out – because they seem ‘dangerous’.

It is remarkable just how quickly we are adjusting to this new way of living.

It is also strange… that it doesn’t seem strange.

Our instinct is to avoid, be vigilant and be wary because each and every person we encounter is a possible carrier of Covid – ‘The Virus’.

And so we alter our mindset and adapt to new spatial protocols. Although not the most determined rule-breakers.

They scoot past…. we stand back…. everyone keeps their distance.

This ‘little dance’ of the two-metre rule.

Any situation that involves being with other people makes us more cautious, and more alert.

We hold ourselves back – and we expect others to do the same. 

Very quickly, we can now assess a spatial situation where we do/ do not feel comfortable.

People on the street and in the supermarket aisle… We respond with a rising panic, a quick swerve or suddenly standing stock-still. 

two feet Covid sign on floor

I see you….

I know you are there.

But who is going to move first?

The ongoing impact of Covid means we are adjusting to a new sense of ‘personal space’.  

This is ‘my’ body, this is ‘my’ space.

Other people – in ‘their’ space – are surrounded by a notional Covid forcefield. And so we stand apart from them in a way that just a few months ago might seem hostile, or rude.

If we have elderly or vulnerable people in our bubble, whatever we do, wherever we go, and whoever we interact with could affect them.

This opens up an invisible chain of contact with everyone we have met, and will meet.

But it also draws attention to the unseen threat of where others have been, and what they have touched 24 hours… 72 hours ago?

Covid may lurk on surfaces on tables,  menus, petrol pumps, door handles and goods in shops. 

Everyday items that we  touch and handle through  our fingertips may be the very thing that the Covid-person coughed on.  

We can’t know for sure.

And so now we are good at ‘ not touching’ things. Using our elbows to open doors, pulling down our sleeve to touch pedestrian crossing buttons and lifts, kicking doors open/closed with our foot.

New Contact Tracing apps expose our physical contact with a ‘Covid-person’, but not what they touched.  

Who is that person? Where have they been? How sick are they? How contagious? Are they isolating? Should I?

Before this, the chain of environmental contact was of no real concern. ‘Human touch‘ was something positive and good and contact with different materials an important part of our everyday experience.

Not any more.

Throughout lockdown, people met socially at the garden gate, across the fence. Because we can’t be together we are happy to share a cup of tea either side of the window/porch/door/street.

We meet outdoors in parks and open areas – in the cold.

Truly vulnerable people need physical human contact.  

We want to be able to be with them totally, physically and mentally, in order to support  them properly.  

It is hard not to be there for them and to remain so distant.

It’s cold, and it’s unnatural.

More than six months in, we are back to a level of semi-contact. This introduces a new ‘spatial code of conduct’. 

Even if we want to escape reality watching TV – we can easily put TV dramas and soaps into a Covid timeframe.

Pre-Covid: it looks very strange to see actors standing so close together.

Now, it looks even more odd to see them stand so far apart. 

We are supposed to believe this is a ‘couple’ who live together – but they never sit close. It is a romantically charged scene and yet  they stand apart from each other across the ‘room.’ 

That’s NOT normal.

This distanced space between actors is not just physical, it is psychological. In this simulacrum of domesticity words are not enough. They are missing obvious gestures and signs where we can read their relationship.

It is a glimpse of an egregious socially distanced future ‘life at home’ – devoid of physical intimacy and contact.

Covid sanitising station in supermarket

We are all living through something that is radically  changing our relationship with body and space.

For children and young people this period it is a big chunk of their life and their formative years.

They won’t get this time back.

It’s not just that children may ‘forget’ how to play together, engage in team sports and just relax in each other’s company. Their freedoms are restricted, their worldly experiences are narrow and their education is disrupted. 

They are forced to forgo the fun of sleep overs, scout camps and school trips. 

Their school life is dominated by a new regime that keeps them clean and safe – but apart.

Children have learned to be suspicious of everyone – even wider family members outside of their bubble.

Repressing their natural gregariousness means the relationship they build with ‘others’ is a compromise.

Through all this they cannot live and behave like children should. And to do the things we want them to do. 

We have to hope they will somehow adapt and bounce back.

Who would want to be a child living through this?

Sadly, until the adults in charge are able to make it work so that we are all safe, it is an uncertain future that lies ahead.

Our whole lives are being disrupted and this will continue to impact on our physical world.

Right now we are living in as small a world as it has ever been.

It’s like one massive lab experiment.

We inhabit spaces in new ways where we and cannot trust our instincts. We are learning to adapt to new ways of interacting to other human beings as a substitute for the ‘real thing’.

Post-Covid… what will this brave new world look like?

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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