With Covid it is a sobering thought that there is no country anywhere in the world that is fully in control. 

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

Keeping people apart is devastating relationships  – and the economy.

We also see that sudden surge in home working is changing the city centre vibe. 

As buildings lie empty, associated retail and hospitality struggles to survive. Once bustling, dynamic and busy with a flow of people the fear is that these places will become ghost towns. 

People are not venturing into cities – if they don’t have to.  So, now 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. 

Only when people can come back safely together again in the same space will our economies be able to grow. Being ‘together’ as human beings, as family, as friends, colleagues, team members and classmates will be a challenge.

‘Space’ is key governmental response to Covid. It is the only weapon that works  against the spread of this unseen enemy: keeping your distance, avoiding others, reducing social contact.

Designers know how space works: how it is experienced and how it can be improved. Through Covid we see how human behaviours have changed.

Because of Covid, we 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, someone with whom we live. 

Whenever people come together they are normally wearing a mask. We 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, and they seem ‘dangerous’.

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

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

Fear of the virus leads many of us to a deep-set caution of others.  Our instinct is to avoid, be vigilant and be wary because each and every person we encounter is a possible carrier of the virus.

And so we adapt to new spatial protocols:  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 back, and we expect others to do the same. 

Very quickly, we now assess spatial situations where we do/ do not feel comfortable. On the street and in the supermarket aisle leads to 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?

Covid creates 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 keep apart 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 highlights 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.

Track and trace apps tell us about physical contact with a Covid-person, but not what they touch.  

Before all this, a chain of contact was of no real concern and ‘human touch‘ was something positive and good.

Through lockdown, people met socially on doorsteps, at the garden gate, across the fence. Happy to have a cup of tea either side of the window/porch/door; because we can be together, yet apart. 

We know that truly vulnerable people need physical 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 so cold, and unnatural.

More than six months in, we are back to a level of semi-contact and a new, very structured normality. We see this as a new ‘code of conduct’ between people. 

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. But it looks even more odd to see them stand so far apart (post-Covid).  

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

Is this a glimpse of a new socially distanced ‘life at home’ devoid of physical intimacy and contact!? The ‘space’ between actors is not just physical but psychological. In this simulacrum of domesticity words and gestures alone are not enough, they need some sort of physical contact. That’s what we know. It’s what makes us human.

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

Six months for an adult is a blink of an eye. For children and young people, 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.

Because of Covid, children have 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. 

For their sake, we hope, they will somehow adapt, and bounce back.

Who would want to be a child living through this?

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

Our whole lives have been disrupted. Our world is changing.

Post-Covid, we will continue to inhabit spaces big and small, and to experience new ways of relating to other humans.

More than ever before – it is a world that needs design.

Nuala Rooney

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

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