Moving from Abstinence to Harm Reduction in the Age of Physical Distancing

By Amanda Wilson, March 31, 2020

For most of us, we are now entering week three of intensive physical distancing measures: don’t go out unless absolutely necessary, work from home if you’re able, do not socialize or congregate in groups, stay at least 6 ft apart of anyone except those in your household. The general message we’re receiving from public health officials and governments is: the safest thing for you to do right now is be alone.

I don’t disagree with any of this; in fact, I think it is incredibly important.  But I also think these are temporary measure for what’s increasingly looking like a long-term situation. 

Yesterday, the Government of Ontario announced new emergency measures that will close “All Outdoor Recreational Amenities”, including, but not limited to “playgrounds, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, beaches, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, outdoor community gardens, park shelters, outdoor exercise equipment, condo parks and gardens, and other outdoor recreational amenities.” This basically means that public space is no longer public, or only marginally so, as we can still briskly walk through the park, alone, for now.

As our understanding of the scale and scope of this pandemic shifts from weeks into months, so too do our responses to cope and survive.  And here’s the thing, Zoom is not, and will not be, enough. We now have virtual courses, coffee dates, yoga classes, tai chi, music shows and children’s story time. I’m not saying these aren’t great – I’ve had two family dinners over Zoom and it felt really wonderful to see my parents faces (whom I haven’t seen in 2 1/2 weeks) and participate in our typical Sunday dinner banter. 

But, at a certain point I think we need to shift from a discourse of “don’t go outside and interact with others” to a discourse of “how can we interact with people in a way that minimizes risk and potential harm?”  I’m not suggesting we throw caution to the wind and hold that dance party fundraiser or march as normal on May Day; but that we start to re-think and re-imagine how we can organize together, build and sustain community, support one another, in addition to (not instead of) internet-based interactions. 

An abstinence-based approach to physical distancing says here is a list of things you shouldn’t do; if you are doing those things you are bad, the only way to be good is to not do those things. A harm-reduction approach to physical distancing asks what are the things that are important to us, and how can we conceive of doing those things in ways that minimizes the harm and risk.

The idea that we should abstain from a long list of activities needs to evolve to a set of guidelines, practices, and adaptations that enable us to live together while reducing the potential for risk and harm.  This doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do all the things we used to, but it acknowledges that people have different needs and different circumstances and we need to find a way to work with those.

Only interacting with people in your household is easy (or perhaps easier) if you live with someone else (whom you like spending time, and who is healthy and safe for you to be interacting with), and if you live in a situation that has enough space for those interactions to be comfortable. If you live alone, if you live in a cramped or unsafe household, that becomes much more difficult, and potentially much unhealthier. Similarly, interacting online with friends and family is easy if you have access to the right technology, a strong internet connection, and if the people you are seeking to connect with also have those things. All of us need to do different things to maintain our mental and physical health – exercise, meditation, eating particular foods, accessing certain services and support.  Our ability to do these things under the current protocols varies greatly, and we need to think of ways of living, collectively, that enable all of us to do those things. 

My partner and I had dinner (over Zoom) with two friends of ours. Our friend Dave wondered about the possibility of playing tennis this summer – suggesting he and my partner could minimize risk by labelling tennis balls with their initials, so that they wouldn’t touch the same ball and potential expose one another. This is one small example of the kinds of thinking I think we need to start focusing on.

Photo credit: Bonnie Castillo, National Nurses United

Over the past few days I saw photos of nurses in the US protesting the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) being provided by their employer – in the photos they were sufficiently distanced and linked by a role of red caution tape they were all holding.  Again, this is one way we might adapt collective action.

As Alexis Shotwell recently wrote “survival is insufficient. We deserve roses too.” She asks “..what does it mean for us to fight for roses, for more than survival, when so many people already are not surviving?” For me, this shift in thinking is part of how I would answer that question. While our thoughts are largely consumed with the rising number of cases, deaths, tracking quickly depleting supplies of medical equipment, workers continue to struggle for decent pay and working conditions, migrants continue to face discrimination and harassment at the hands of the state, and folks on social assistance continue to face impossible choices to meet their daily needs. These fights are still important, perhaps even more important in our current realities. What does it look like to fight for other worlds and possibilities when our basic tools of organizing and connection we are accustomed to using have been thrown out the window? We start building new ones; we adapt existing ones, and we remember old ones.  We don’t need to do this all at once, in fact we should definitely not try to do this all at once, but bit by bit we can re-construct and re-define what it means to live together.

Most importantly, we need to do this in a way that works to undermine rather than exacerbate existing inequalities and power structures.  As Yavar Hameed writes “Space is not a neutral zone; it is the battleground for ideological contests and the enforcement of normative patterns which dispossess rather than foster community…. We should not pretend to understand the spatial challenges and lived experiences of everyone in Canada, but we must use this moment to better acquaint ourselves with and question the oppressive dynamics of spatial control that lie in the balance.”

I don’t have any concrete comprehensive proposals for what a harm reduction approach to physical distancing looks like – but I think it starts with a rejection of attempts to police and criminalize behaviours (read this and this) and begins from an ethos of care (read this), mutual aid (read this) and a belief that fundamentally, humans beings want the best for one another and want to support one another. I’m not ready to give up on community gardens, playgrounds and potlucks, or the idea that collective action can transform this world; we just need to take a breath (or two) and re-imagine what this looks like, and how to make it a reality.

Amanda Wilson is a Professor in the School of Social Innovation and an organizer with Punch Up Collective.