Consent in a pandemic

Isolation is hard. Human beings are social animals – we need contact and connection for our physical and mental well-being… and loneliness is a killer, albeit less obvious than a virus.

My good friend (let’s call her Vera, the cactus) was pleased by advice to stop close physical contact like hugging, kissing and shaking hands – she joked about feeling free of the social conventions that pressure her to get up close and personal. And my introvert friends have been sharing funny memes on social media expressing joy at the thought of self isolation – if you love your own space and company, being forced to take 2 weeks out of social situations might seem like a relief. But even my prickly cactus friend wants closeness and company sometimes, and all of our laughter is awkward. If we didn’t laugh we’d cry, because we know and care deeply about the toll this may take on us, individually and collectively, close to home and in the wider scope of humanity… if we weren’t already worried about the environment and mass global extinction, maybe we’re starting to worry now.

As an organiser of cultural and social events, some of which are vital points of connection for marginalised individuals and communities, it’s really hard to make the decision to cancel them… but we are beginning to do so, and to advise our communities to make their own individual decisions about what’s safe for them and for the people they’re likely to come into contact with.

Two days ago I was at a cultural meeting for LGBTQI+ people, and the host was encouraging everyone to high five each other. Nobody objected – was that intentional, foolishness, lack of concern, or social pressure to conform? I wonder how many of us paused for thought. But just a few days before I’d been joking about the panic of those who were refusing to shake hands and stock-piling hand sanitiser. The friend I hugged and laughed with is self-isolating now with a fever and a cough… six days since that hug, should I avoid contact with vulnerable people, even though I have no symptoms at all..?

And how do any of us really know who is vulnerable. If you work with young children, or the elderly, or the auto immune, you’re probably aware you present a risk. But what about my friend who is young and healthy, but the primary carer of a Dad with terminal cancer – she’s not obviously vulnerable, but with young kids at school and work that brings her into close contact with people, she’s having to take the kids out of school, isolate herself friends and loved ones, stay our of public spaces including shops, and more so she can minimize the risk to her Dad. It’s not at all obvious that she’s vulnerable, but without her care her Dad surely is.

Today, a colleague who was due to present at a meeting I’m hosting this afternoon called to say they’re self-isolating. They explained that they feel a mixture of guilt at letting me down, responsibility to their employer to keep working, shame that they may have exposed children in schools they’ve worked in recently to the virus, anxiety about their own health and potential loss of income, and confusion about what best to do. Their father, a GP, advised them that their responsibility is to the wider community, not to their employer – they had to shake off the feeling they’re supposed to work, work, work, even when they’re sick. Those feelings of guilt, responsibility, shame, anxiety and confusion are powerful… and there is a pandemic not just of Covid-19, but of complex and difficult feelings for us all to contend with.

In our culture of entitlement, some will act from a place of selfishness and self preservation: take risks to earn money, stock pile scarce resources, wash their own hands of responsibility for anyone else. If everyone does that, the pandemic will escalate quickly and probably be more lethal – putting pressure on health services and medical resources that might stretch them to breaking point. If you have all the soap, how is anyone else to wash their hands? The irony is you’re probably putting yourself at greater risk – and you’re certainly escalating the problem for the people around you.

Some will act with care and community in mind, understanding that we need herd immunity to survive, and that that means looking after each other. We can’t cure or halt the virus – but we can slow it’s progress so that the resources we need to survive it don’t run out before they can be restocked. And we can protect the most vulnerable from it, whilst as a community our collective immunity grows. But that requires co-operation, consensus…

Now is the time to be the change you want to see in the world – doing so is actually a matter of survival. Rather than the rampant individualism of entitlement culture, we need individuals to take collective responsibility, to use our own agency, choice, consent for the good of everyone – which is the essence of consent culture.

Consent is permission or agreement – and we can permit ourselves and others to take risks, or we can agree to prioritise community. Consent is transformative and the world is changing – we can allow the entitled to monopolise resources, or we can refuse to be panicked into selfishness and watch out for each other instead. What you choose to say yes or no to right now really does make a difference. Isolate if you have to, for the good of everyone – but stay connected in all the ways you can. I hope humanity will demonstrate it’s best nature now, surviving and thriving as we give or withdraw our consent with care and love for our fellow beings.

13 March 2020

© JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

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