Distancing bodies, shifting minds: The ambivalence of ‘being together’ during COVID-19

Distancing bodies, shifting minds: The ambivalence of ‘being together’ during COVID-19

Reading Time: 4 minutes

With the advent of lockdowns due to COVID-19, the world has been experiencing massive physical and psychological shifts, which are often ambivalent in nature. In other words, on the one hand, this biomedical crisis has compelled the people to physically distance themselves from each other in the public spaces, but on the other hand, it has allowed them to stay close to their family members. This process of staying close to the family are generating mixed results. As we look across the social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we see how people, through different forms of photo challenges like ‘childhood photo challenge’, ‘family photo challenge’, parenthood photo challenge’, etc, are trying to revamp their childhood memories. The habitual experiences of the physical and psychological confinement have enabled the individuals to undergo a daily exercise of self-meditation, self-reflection and self-realisation, which otherwise remains quite ignored within the mechanical routines of daily life. These exercises of self-meditation, self-reflection and self-realisation receive an impetus, when they are performed within a family space.

Positive Impacts of ‘Being Together’

Chad Noggle, a certified neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist, observes that in order to ensure physical and psychological well-being amid this pandemic terror, it is important to “devote time to yourself, your family, [and] your friends…” In order to overcome any form of stresses and anxieties, familial togetherness is extremely important. According to Dawn Trussell, an associate professor of sport management at Brock University: “There is an important opportunity to strengthen familial bonds and create a sense of unity. Research shows us that families need a sense of familiarity and stability in their lives; these experiences can foster feelings of family closeness”. While developing the idea of this article, I have spoken to several family members and friends in India, and most of them are of the view that the lockdown has allowed them to re-discover themselves and their relationships with their family members in a very optimistic manner. Working parents, who have to exclusively depend on babysitters to look after their children, are able to find time for their own kids. The children are also able to spend a lot of time with their parents and siblings. With respect to the participation in daily household chores, the gender-role mechanism is also shifting, especially in the case of heterosexual couples. From being naturally and stereotypically women-centred, daily household responsibilities are gradually becoming gender neutral. Cassie Werber, in her article The COVID-19 Recession, philosophises that “COVID-19 recession will hurt women more, but it might nudge them towards equality”. In order to further justify her argument, she says that there are ample of instances across the globe where female doctors and nurses are performing their duties outside the home and their male partners are staying back to take care of the household. With respect to these instances, Harleena Singh, in her article Family Time, identifies ten prominent factors about why family time is important. The factors are:

  1. To build a strong family bond.
  2. To have time for talking and listening.
  3. To teach children important life lessons.
  4. To show affection, appreciation and encouragement.
  5. To instil family values in the children.
  6. To inculcate family rituals and traditions.
  7. To respect each other’s differences.
  8. To be in touch with friends and relatives.
  9. To share household chores
  10. To help and connect better with your children.

But, the process of self-reflection and self-realisation through familial togetherness can yield violently negative results as well.

Negative Impacts of ‘Being Together’

Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, reports that “her office has received more reports of landlords sexually harassing their tenants in the last two weeks than it had in two years since she started working… including cases of landlords offering to move in with tenants and sending sexually explicit photos to them…” She also says that coercion by landlords are not new, but with the initiation of the lockdown process it has reached a different level of concern. The chief of National Commission for Women (NCW) in India, Rekha Sharma, reflects: “Domestic violence cases have doubled than what it was before the lockdown. The cases of domestic violence are high in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab”. She feels that the main reason behind the rise of domestic violence “is that the men are at home and they are taking out their frustration on women and they refuse to participate in domestic work. Women are also confined within the four walls and they cannot share their grief with anybody”. In the article Lockdown with Abusers, Rukmini S shares the story of a 45-year-old woman named Parvathi (named changed) from Chennai. Being physically abused by her husband is not a new experience for Parvathi. But, the lockdown has closed all her routes to escape. Prior to the lockdown, whenever her drunkard husband abused her, she would escape by running out “into the narrow lanes of the slum she lives” and would call her neighbours for help. But, with the lockdown, as the narrow lanes and the streets have been barricaded, she is obliged to stay at home.

In the Hubei province of China it has been found that, with the outbreak of coronavirus, the number of cases of domestic violence has increased from “47 cases last year to 162 this year”. In South Africa, Police Minister Bheki Cele said that the “police have received more than 87000 gender-based violence during the first week of the 21-day national lockdown”. The Hindu (a national English daily in India) reveals that “the Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, a sombre indication that the lockdown has turned into extended captivity not just for many women, but also for children trapped with their abusers at home. The Miami News Times of the United States suspects that “social distancing, job loss, and financial pressures could put children at greater risk of abuse by other household members during the crisis”.

These instances unfurl that familial togetherness at the time of COVID-19 has generated different experiences for different individuals across the globe. For some individuals, the lockdown has been a blessed journey towards optimism and self-discovery, while for others it has been a physically and psychologically nightmarish experience – pandemics within a pandemic. Though the lockdown has been a painful experience for so many individuals, yet it is giving the urban middle class (especially in India) a chance to re-understand and re-configure their family relationships by spending time with each other. In this way, the article, through physical distancing and psychological shifts, exposes the ambivalence of ‘being together’ during the pandemic of COVID-19.

Dr. Sayan Dey is currently working as a Lecturer in Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. His areas of research interests are postcolonial studies, decolonial studies, race studies, anthropology, sociology and food humanities.

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