From ‘social distancing’ to planetary solidarity

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Nandita Sharma.

Greetings from Hawai’i!

Reading Colin’s blog from the ‘afar’ of Bristol has made me think about distance, and the (dis)connections between physical and social distancing. We are physically far apart, but, I like to think, socially close. This seems to run counter to the ‘social distancing’ we are being enjoined to adopt.

‘Social distancing’ is the most oft-used phrase during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it could be the motto for how states and ruling classes govern. For those studying the political economy of capitalism, ‘social distancing’ is understood as the effort by rulers to keep the levers of power and much-needed resources out of the reach of most people (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, personal communication, 11 March 2020).

Physical distancing at the bus stop (image: Gavin Clarke on flickr.com)


‘Social distancing,’ then, is not about the physical space between us. All systems of apartheid, after all, are built to ensure the close proximity of the dominators and those they supress. The point of ideological practices such as sexism, racism and nationalism is to keep us politically separated from one another. Going along with the idea that ‘we’ are unconnected to ‘them’ severely weakens our ability to take back our power and resources. That is precisely the point.

Rulers extol us to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from the rest of life on our shared planet. We are encouraged to use non-humans as we will but to take no responsibility for the harm we do. Indeed, we are taught to deny any awareness of our actions and to deny our connections with other life forms.

This is reflected in the political organisation of our world. We live in a global system of apartheid organised by nation-states, which encourages us to see each nationalised territory in splendid isolation from all others. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that we ignore the world at our peril.

What we can learn from this global pandemic is that the global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into almost all parts of the planet has resulted in the destruction of complex ecosystems, the dispossession of more and more living beings (humans and non-humans), the rise of industrial agriculture and ‘meat farms,’ the cultural capital attached to eating ‘wild’ animals by urban dwellers, and the expanding supply chain of commodities. Each of these have contributed to the breeding and spreading of novel viruses.

Yet, none of this reality is reflected in responses to COVID-19 by either nation-states or capital. Instead, each nation-state touts its border controls as its first ‘line of defense’ (in keeping with the general militarised jingoism of the pandemic). Meanwhile, capital discourages efforts to halt transmission of the disease while pushing for the quick ‘opening up’ of the economy. Nation-states have largely gone along with this by refusing to organise the redistribution of wealth necessary to ensure that people can survive without jobs.

Many imagining themselves as members of the ‘nation’ cheer on such approaches, thereby further fanning the flames of racism/nationalism and deflecting attention away from inept governments and rapacious capitalist markets. Such approaches are on full display in the United States (but not only here).

On 31 January 2020, the same day the novel coronavirus was first declared a public health emergency, Trump issued an executive order blocking the entry of anyone who had been in China in the last 14 days. On 11 March 2020, Trump extended the travel ban to include the 26 EU Schengen states. On 14 March, it was extended further to encompass the UK and Ireland.

In keeping with the structural importance of national citizenship to current regimes of power, these travel bans do not apply to US residents and family members or spouses of US residents or citizens, even though they may very well be the ones carrying and spreading COVID-19. In any case, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US was announced more than ten days before the very first travel ban. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to increase. So too have border control measures.

Supposedly to ‘protect the public health,’ on 20 March 2020 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health order denying people seeking asylum the protections afforded them under national law and allowing them to be summarily deported. From 21 March 2020 to 30 April 2020, more than 20,000 migrants were expelled, mostly to Mexico. 

Migrants are deported from the US to Mexico, March 2020 (image: Asociacion Pop No’j)


Of this number, 915 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum. A New York Times reporter found that, ‘some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters [sic] and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families’ (Dickerson 2020). Disavowing responsibility for the harm they do to others, the US government is largely silent about the spread of COVID-19 in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps or their deporting of people with the virus to nation-states with far less resources than the US. This too is a form of ‘social distancing.’

At the same time, nationalism doesn’t prevent people from demanding that what they need and want from ‘outside’ continues to enter, including personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment and people recruited to work in sectors deemed ‘essential’ for the well-being of the citizenry. While industries of healthcare, agriculture, meatpacking and more would cease to operate were non-citizen workers not permitted to enter and work in the US, these workers are denied the rights and protections available to the citizenry they serve.

The issue, then, is hardly about movement. Nation-states actively organise the movement of people, other living beings, capital, commodities and more – but only on terms that maintain ‘social distancing.’ That is, only on terms that will keep power and resources out of the reach of most people and only on terms that will ensure our continued separation from one another.

This is not a contradiction, so far as nationalists are concerned. Instead, it is a powerful testimony of the importance of separation to ruling relations.

If ‘social distancing’ is the mantra of those hoarding power and wealth, the response of those seeking liberty from rulers is to break down the walls built to disconnect us from one another. While public health officials and media talk about ‘community spread,’ it is also true that during this global pandemic a tremendous growth of solidarity has taken place.

Here in Hawai’i, where I am ‘sheltered in place’ with my partner, Gaye Chan, there has been a massive uptick in our connections to people, mostly strangers. In keeping with our project, Eating in Public, Gaye has responded to the fear of food shortages at the market by building ‘weed stations’ that demonstrate how to grow and cook the edible, nutritious and tasty weeds all around us. She then erected another Free Store, re-stocked on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. And, she helped organise the Seamsters Union that, to date, has collectively made more than 3,000 cloth masks to freely distribute to those ignored by rulers. Each day, more people come and go, stop and talk than ever before. Practicing solidarity while adhering to safe practices of physical distancing is the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and it forges a path away from our dominated world. And, I know we are not alone.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She recently published a new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).

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