I wrote last month about the censoriousness which seems to have proliferated during the pandemic. It frustrates me when I see it in others but I then notice it welling up in myself, in ways connected with but irreducible to behaviours which increase transmission risks. In her latest newsletter Zeynep Tufekci situates this in terms of a longer tradition of treating illness in moralistic and metaphorical ways:
It’s essentially a belief that a perceived sense of superiority about one’s own behaviors confers better protection against the illness/this pandemic, and that disease is something that descends upon those who have the wrong kind of fun. People, for example, who are visible on the beach, especially young people.
I saw someone make this observation on Twitter recently about crowd-fixation. We know that outdoor transmission is minuscule and that super-spreader events are pretty much absent. To the extent they happen outside, they’re indoor/outdoor events where both elements are involved and it’s not possible to definitively identity where transmission happens*. Why then is there a media fixation on crowds? Why has this transmitted to people’s dispositions?
I think Zeynep’s explanation about the politics of fun captures an important aspect of this. The horrible irony about the Covid scolding Grim Reaper figure trawling Florida beaches is that, as she notes, he’s probably the biggest threat to the people he’s scolding by entering into their personal space and loudly talking to them at length. The same is true of the woman who followed me round a shop early in the pandemic, shouting at me that I’d not given her sufficient distance in the entrance to the shop. Is covid censoriousness a vector of transmission? It’s an arresting thought but one more valuable for the irony than its epidemiological insight.
A distance from relaxed sociality has become a marker of seriousness and protection, with the capacity to relax in groups in public spaces signifying a failure of responsibility and exposure to risk. If we see the public sphere as something which will need reconstructing after the pandemic then this disposition risks being a major impediment, not least of all when we consider how it will intersect with post-pandemic inequalities.
*For avoidance of doubt, this isn’t an argument against outdoor social distancing during a pandemic. It’s an argument about being clear about the relative risks involved indoor & outdoor interaction then adjusting behaviour and regulations accordingly.