Illustration by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

OPINION: How the new normal of ‘social distancing’ will change the way we live

In a world where there are less opportunities for showing off, we will finally see luxury truly redefined. By DAVID CELDRAN
| Mar 23 2020

If I told you more than a week ago that it would be impossible to plan a vacation, book a restaurant, or shop in the mall, let alone, visit a relative across town, you’d probably think I was being paranoid — or crazy. Indeed, we are all familiar with the travel restrictions imposed in times of political upheaval and in the aftermath of terror attacks and natural calamities. But even in the midst of these disruptions we’ve managed to leave our homes to connect with friends and neighbors, even if that merely meant walking a few steps across the street. 

Not anymore. Not for a while, at least. Welcome to the new normal, where the fear of contagion has immobilized us indefinitely and threatens to rob us of the unique qualities of civilized society.

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What happens when our cherished notions of sociability and mobility are challenged by the call for social distancing? We could defy the authorities and ignore the scientific data, or we could begin by learning from the unfolding global emergency in order to emerge better prepared to meet the next public health threats. We can start by rethinking the way we design our cities, our communities, and, indeed, our personal relationships. Some of these lessons involve practical solutions; others are existential.

 

The virtual economy is here

We are seeing it happen. Everything from virtual offices, classrooms, medical consultations, even online Zumba lessons are popping up everywhere. The digital economy is still a long way from providing all the necessary services to households, but thanks to online transactions we can at least assure ourselves that banks remain open, food can be delivered to our homes, and entertainment channels are not disrupted so long as you have a robust broadband connection.

Online transactions have made food delivery easier. Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

The digital future has been accelerated accidentally and it provides service providers with a taste of the possible, and consumers with an appetite for transacting more aspects of their daily lives in the virtual economy. The ease of exchange in the digital world will come at a price, however. The obvious challenge will be the survival of brick and mortar establishments. But that’s old news. 

Less predictable is the threat of social anomie. It’s only been a few days into the quarantine and people are already feeling the social dislocation that accompanies the lack of face to face communication. There’s only so much that Facetime and chat groups can do to fill the need for human connection. Naturally, we are transfixed with the rising death toll from the virus, but if ‘social distancing’ is the new normal, expect a rise in psycho-social cases as well.

There's no substitute for personal connections. Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

The importance of human connection

Isolation has its upside. Solitude is good for the soul and we can all benefit from the break from our mindless routines to meditate on the more crucial questions of existence and our purpose on this planet. Blah, blah, blah. I’m certain you’ve heard that from your friends on FB already. But unlike the annual Holy Week retreat, the current quarantine isn’t voluntary. So how does one appreciate tranquility in the midst of so much bad news? 

We hear silence outside our windows, but it’s not the quietude of a monastery, rather more like a scene from a horror movie. And that’s when fear creeps in. In normal times, or even in calamities other than a pandemic, humans need to reach out, console, cry, or try to laugh amongst each other. It’s a bond you can’t quite achieve on your WhatsApp or Viber group. Sociability is the essence of humanity. If anything, this crisis helps us realize the importance of staying in touch with loved ones — or pretty much anyone, for that matter. I bet most of us are starting to miss those dreaded office meetings and awkward family reunions already. Virtual connections will never replace the human touch. At least now we are sure of it.

 

It’s time to rethink the design of our cities 

It shouldn’t take a ‘lockdown’ of a city to realize that our urban centers are designed to make matters worse for residents than they already are on a daily basis. It’s bad enough to have to endure the congestion and pollution in our cities, but in times of a pandemic, the larger population size and densities multiply the rate of transmission exponentially. The crowded conditions also depress the body’s immune response system and make city-dwellers particularly vulnerable.

Unlike this present configuration, the city of the future is prepared for times of calamity. Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash

Apart from threatening public health, urban sprawl and poor zoning policies also hinder mobility in times of calamity. While the transport ban is well-meaning (and conditionally necessary), the long distance between the homes of residents to health care facilities and their places of employment becomes problematic. 

We’ve already seen how health workers and other essential personnel without their own private vehicles were stranded at the onset. Chartered buses are a temporary solution but it’s time to reconsider the far bigger problem of haphazard city planning. Local governments and developers should adopt urban models where homes are in closer proximity to critical government and private services. These need to be connected to each other through pedestrian and bike-friendly paths to facilitate movement if and when roads are blocked. Of course, urban design is closely tied to the political economy. But let’s not waste this opportunity to learn from the crisis.

Communal spaces encourage personal connections. Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Home is where the heart is

I used to find this line cheesy but not as much anymore. The enhanced community quarantine has forced us to assess qualities like comfort, livability and the human relationships in our homes. The Danes have a term for it – ‘hygge’ – which roughly translates as a feeling of coziness and a sense of well-being. Known as among the happiest societies in the world, the Danes take pride in this national value and do as much as they can to fill their homes with ‘hygge.’  They achieve this with interiors designed to maximize that feeling of being comforted by family members and physical objects in their immediate surroundings. A typical ‘hyggelig’ home would combine spaces for intimate gatherings with comfortable furnishings, and soft-lighting techniques to induce a soothing effect on residents.

The modern homes of the Philippine middle and upper classes however are usually designed to bring out the opposite effect unintentionally. Instead of gathering places, mobile digital technology and the popular multi-partitioned house model conspire to splinter family life and funnel individual activities to separate living quarters. This, after all, is a practical arrangement for parents grappling with busy schedules and kids who rely on mobile devices for their social networks. The ongoing quarantine could disrupt this model of the home and bring families to reorganize their interiors to adapt to the new realities of 24/7 facetime in their domiciles. Expect to see more investment in common facilities and time spent in shared spaces although it’s not just the physical structure of homes that may evolve; family members will likewise need to bridge gaps that may have formed over years of atomized living and virtual communication.

With less people to impress, material things will have a diminished value. Photo by Nicolai Berntsen on Unsplash

Luxury goods and status symbols will be redefined

As more public spaces are closed and more time spent at home there will be far less opportunities to display the accoutrements of privilege. Suddenly, that designer bag or ‘must-have’ watch you splurged on seems less valuable now compared to when you purchased it. The same goes for the brand-new luxury car now stranded in the garage (or stuck in the showroom awaiting delivery on…who knows?). Luxury will still have a place in our lives, no doubt, but those objects that bring genuine private joy to us will feel so much more desirable than anything else purchased to elicit awe and approval from our peers. Perhaps this will teach us to spend a bit more on fine art, well-designed furniture, and other luxuries that can enhance long days at home.

 

The rise of self-sufficiency 

This crisis has taught us one other important thing: our embarrassing inadequacy in traditional skills. Modern society relies on the vast and interlocking web of labor and specialized skills that help our communities and homes run smoothly. But when the gardener, cook or carpenter is barred from getting to work, we find ourselves paralyzed and unable to function properly. 

We have to learn simple life skills so that we're not always dependent on others. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

For those struggling with a leaking pipe or a busted TV, the definition of menial labor will never be the same again. This should not only remind us to better appreciate the work of specialists, their temporary absence ought to encourage us to learn the skills that seemed to come so naturally to the generation of our grandparents. But we shouldn’t fret just yet because the extended quarantine gives us a lot of time to improve on those basic skills we’ve since taken for granted.

The same goes for residential communities. We’ve all become accustomed to having government agencies handle national disasters, but a prolonged health emergency is expected to push public resources to the limit. In extreme cases, government workers may not be around to respond to the immediate needs of citizens. To fill the void, condominium, subdivision and community associations should have an organization of volunteers and professional staff to ensure that medical, security, food distribution and information services are in place during a protracted crisis. Emergency or not, a return to the old-fashioned principle of self-reliance is a wise policy.

Reusing non-perishable objects is a must. Photo by Hamza Javaid on Unsplash

Reduce, reuse, recycle — is not a slogan

One of the many constraints of community quarantine is the amount of supplies available to each household. Groceries and drug stores are open for now but the travel restrictions and the danger of contamination in these establishments threatens access to basic supplies. I know its common sense in times of shortage, but to reduce consumption and reuse non-perishable items should be practiced seriously. Hipsters, this is your chance to put your money where your mouth is.

 

We will think about others more

I don’t just mean our loved ones. It’s natural to secure the well-being of your family in times of crisis, but an emergency of this proportion also forces us to consider the survival of those beyond our immediate circles. The motivation to help is altruistic, but there’s an underlying instinct for self-preservation at play as well. ‘Social distancing’ and the fear of contamination make philanthropy challenging, but there is no alternative but to share resources with those with less access to them. Simply put: the poor cannot be left behind.

The marginalized suffer more in times of calamity. Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Sadly, this is more of a wish than actual reality. As we are seeing, the marginalized suffer the most in times of calamity, and the restrictions on mobility during this health emergency only make things worse for those who cannot afford to stock on basic commodities. Telecommuting, ATMs and online food deliveries are helping millions cope with the suspension of work and the ban on transportation, but these services are beyond the reach of folks without access to cash on demand and regular employment. 

The experience with relief operations in past disasters may not apply as easily in an area as vast as the entire Luzon and a crisis that could extend for months. Complicating the distribution of supplies is the ‘social distancing’ policy that makes centralized health care and feeding programs in government facilities and schools next to impossible.

Poor nutrition, bad sanitation and congested living conditions in urban centers likewise make the marginalized sector the most vulnerable to mass contagion. In many informal settlements ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ are meaningless when residents live in such close proximity to each other.

In highly developed countries such as the United States and the UK, governments are extending cash, credit, and food vouchers to citizens affected. In China, Scandinavia and Italy, residents are relying on a pervasive health care system that does not discriminate between rich and poor patients. 

The Philippine government, on the other hand, does not have the same resources at their disposal, but the nation is not entirely helpless to respond to the most basic needs of the people in a crisis if we all start to learn from the brutal lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. To paraphrase the cliché: crisis brings out the best and the worst in us; let’s all hope it’s the former that emerges.