Coronavirus 6: distance decay

There is an important but perhaps underused concept in geography known as distance decay. While this emerges most directly from Waldo Tobler’s “first law of geography,” it is easy enough to understand without ever having read the academic research behind it. Tobler’s first law states that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” Social, political, ecological, cultural, and economic connections, this argues, are apt to be more numerous and more consequential between places and processes and things that are closer together than farther away. The inverse is thus also true, that with the increasing “friction” of distance the importance, number, and stability of such connections falls away. Human geography is not primarily a nomothetic discipline, meaning human geographers don’t typically look for universal, generalizable laws in the organization of human activity across the surface of the earth like we’re physicists or chemists (at least not so much anymore), and there has been plenty of critique of Tobler’s arguments over the last five decades. Yet the banal observation that stable, meaningful connection becomes more difficult with greater distance perhaps comes closest to fitting the approach followed by analogues in the natural sciences. 

COVID-19 has thrown this for a loop. Social distancing guidelines dictate that physical closeness means a two-meter personal buffer, at least outside your immediate bubble. It also means those social spaces where “near things” are more deeply and intimately related to one another are shuttered: stores, bars, sports, schools, workplaces. Instead we are encouraged to stay at home, emerging only for essentials, and to use electronic means to entertain ourselves and remain in touch with friends, family, and work. But these are poor substitutes for real physical interaction and being in place with others. So for the time being, near is far, and far is also still far.

This is all starting to turn, of course, as the current forms of sheltering in place and locking down social interaction and spaces are entirely unsustainable over even the short term of a couple of months. Here in Ontario, where the vast majority of verified coronavirus deaths are tied to long-term care facilities for the elderly (which is due in no small part to massive cuts over the last few years), some stores and businesses will start reopening this weekend, and it seems likely that this will expand following the long Victoria Day weekend in a couple of weeks. The situation for schools in Canada remains unclear, though, as only Quebec has made firm plans to reopen elementary schools, even as that province has the most cases (over 31,000) of any in Canada, and accounts for almost half of this country’s approximately 4400 covid-19 deaths.

So what will change going forward as we grasp for some sense of normalcy, even as “normal” remains a moving target? The debate over whether and how to reopen businesses, schools, and other institutions, and how much and what forms of relief are appropriate, is sharp and vociferous, perhaps nowhere more so than in the US. If anyone thought the shared experience of this pandemic would heal partisan wounds and produce a sense of collective sacrifice and support in American society, well, it’s time to grow up. The pandemic has poured gasoline on the fire, and the demands of social distancing, business closures, and massive (but still inadequate) relief efforts have brought some of the worst elements of American political life to the fore. I don’t want to downplay the efforts of those who have gone out of their way to help relatives, friends, and neighbors deal with the isolation produced by the pandemic response, or who have sacrificed time and labor to make masks and help fill egregious gaps in PPE provision. But since mid-April, anti-lockdown protests have ramped up at state capitols around the US (and a few scattered but much smaller ones across Canada), with attendees expressing a wide mix of specific grievances about loss of services and impacts on small businesses and consumers, and of general paranoia about the loss of liberty, with this sometimes careening into wild conspiracy (see claims about “empty hospitals” here in Ontario just this week) and egregiously inapt historical analogy to conditions in Nazi Germany. The last of these seems to have become a regular go-to at such rallies, prompting one historian to declare that comparisons between stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of coronavirus and the planned elimination of millions of Europe’s Jews, Roma, and other sexual and racial minorities “extremely stupid” and “a massive distortion of historical reality.”

Which, of course, it obviously is. The concentration camps where Nazis executed or worked to death millions of people is surely not the first, second, or last thing that should come to mind when some governor encourages people to stay at home and not hit the restaurant or hairdresser or garden center for a few weeks. But these are exactly the kinds of specific complaints made at the anti-lockdown rallies — haircuts have been missed, lawn fertilizer and grass seed is unable to be purchased in-store, and people cannot go to restaurants and bars and movie theaters.

The larger point about the loss of liberty under stay-at-home orders, which might have some validity and political purchase, is lost amid the cacophony of small scale complaints that amount to little more than the inconveniences of not being allowed to shop at all times. This should reveal something of the class character of these protests. It’s too easy to assume that the men showing up with assault rifles to the Michigan legislature, or the woman in the image above shouting from her enormous new pickup truck at a nurse on the street in Denver are just yahoos from the sticks or the kind of “white working class voter” that brought Trump to the presidency in 2016. This is a dangerous assumption, I think, and overlooks not only the astroturf nature of much of the backing for and organization of these events in the US, but also the deeply reactionary impulse of the middle class and small business owners in the face of economic crisis. If the demands at statehouses were for more robust and timely delivery of emergency benefits, or the mandated production of emergency health infrastructure and equipment, or even for provision of basic goods and services through a massive new jobs program (something like a ‘covid New Deal’ perhaps) then I could see getting behind it. But we don’t have that. We see instead gripes about loss of entertainment and retail combined with an increasing set of conspiracy-oriented nonsense and threats of violence. And above all, a lack of proportionality. The American right has decried so many milquetoast moves by liberals and Democrats over the last 30 years or more as the last and final slippery slope to communist/fascist dictatorship that the same cry now rings hollow, especially when the protest events themselves appear to be important vectors for the spread of coronavirus. The tone on Twitter and other social media platforms is often even worse, with basic requirements for using hand sanitizer and masks in stores as they reopen identified as the final death of the republic itself.

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I mean, what can you say about a group of people who think not having a toaster oven RIGHT FUCKING NOW is the end of America, and who equate the requirement of a mask in a store to the degrading insignia Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis? This is lunacy and it leads nowhere. But there is no real “Left” political movement with any power to counter it in any coherent, organized way, as the loudest opposed voices come from those who state only that we must believe science and trust in public institutions, and that what these protestors need is simply to stop being so stupid. But science and scientists don’t always know what’s going on — case in point, the completely incoherent guidance on whether and how and to what extent masks help, whether they should be required, in what specific venues or forms — and as I said in a previous post, blind belief in science as political guidance leads to technocratic control. And, guess what, many public institutions in much of the western world have been eroded to the point where technocratic control means flailing around until you can establish some kind of public-private partnership to ensure compliance with austerity. Technocratic forms of governance don’t generally emerge to help people, they are the fallback for managing decline and scarcity. The utter and complete lack of political imagination among political leadership almost across the board in the US and beyond is perhaps the most glaring result of this pandemic. When faced with a true and immediate systemic crisis demanding boldness and compassion and urgency, we instead get relief efforts filtered through crashing systems, debates about whether emergency benefits will discourage people from going back to shitty part-time jobs, and people who would have been eaten by a bear four minutes after stepping foot off the boat that brought their great-grandparents to this side of the world complaining that they can’t go to Home Depot and Applebee’s. For the time being, though, it seems we are opening, cautiously and with restrictions, but distance decay is about to become very personal and very real as social distancing gives way to muscle memory.