Hibs scored. The group of young men queuing with me just ahead of half time for the obligatory pie threw their arms around each other. They bounced up and down chanting Hi-bees, Hi-bees, Hi-bees. The vortex of celebration pulled me in. I became part of that happy huddle. Similar spontaneous celebrations ensued among the other Hibs fans in the away end at Aberdeen’s Pittodrie stadium. Hundreds of people who knew and did not know each other embraced shook hands, slapped backs as required in post-goal jubilations. It turned out to be short-lived happiness. Aberdeen went on to win 3-1.
It was March 7th 2020. Nine days later Prime minister Johnson spoke to the nation. Lockdown was on the horizon.
My experience at the football was nothing out of the ordinary in the lead up to lockdown. The performativities and mundane rituals of everyday life were being enacted by countless people across the UK. They attended parties, sat close to colleagues in the office, sang with the church congregation, enjoyed a cheeky Nandos with their mates or gathered around barbecues.
None of these events are in themselves spectacular. But it is coming clearer that it is the intimate small scale moments of normal life that act as a powerful mode of transmission. Even big crowds, such as football, comprise of multiple small scale interactions.
As we know in sociology, the micro-level of everyday life is important. It produces and reproduces the social. In some strands of sociology (Goffman and Butler, for instance) the interaction is constitutive of the social. It is the moment when the social emerges, when whatever identities are performed come into being.
The turn to embodiment clearly demonstrated so much of the social requires bodily performances or the presence of the body. That performance can be any use of the body from shaking hands, what is worn, what is surgically modified, a kiss on the check, a hug and, critically of all, spending time in close proximity with other people.
Where we have social bodies, we can, therefore, have infection.
It is those micro-moments that must be brought into the analysis of pandemics. Are there now interactions of infectivity? Of course, there are. The introduction outlines one of them. All human interaction where we are near each other is now a site of infectivity, imbued with risk for self and others. Covid-19 is now an actor in social interaction. An uninvited guest in our midst we can’t ignore. It joins the skilful handling and manipulations of symbols, gestures and the performing of social scripts that are the accepted purview of interactions.
It is actively present exerting what refers to as thing-power, producing effects and striving to continue itself. Its presence demands action. It demands an instant reordering of how we relate to each other. How bodies are ordered, disciplined and controlled. Both by governments, institutions and by ordinary people.
The sidewalk ballet that celebrates in her studies of street-level interaction will change. We can’t just glide past people – though for many the pavement was always a fraught stage of gendered, classed, ableist and racialised power plays. Each step is now measured, calibrated and anticipated to maintain an approximated two metres. Transgression of which may result in informal sanctions of a tut-tutting or verbal abuse.
There is a further implication to consider. Covid-19 may be among us, as a pathogen, and as a social actor for some time to come. A r in Science by Kissler et al suggests that social distancing may be necessary till 2022. That would mean a radical altering of all the micro-moments of social interaction. The post-pandemic will not be the same as the pre-pandemic phase.
The mundane everyday activities of just a few weeks ago will not simply re-ermerge. They are the interactions of infectivity. Countries, such as Denmark and Spain, that are easing lockdown are not back to normal. Social distancing still applies. Only certain workplaces and schools are open.
New interactions and performativities of self in public may emerge. But they will require new social scripts, new ways to be in the world, new ways to construct and enact who we are. One of the longer-term effects of the pandemic may, therefore, be an abandonment of all the taken-for-granted and non-reflexive ways we interact with others. The future post-pandemic self could be one of permanent distancing from others.
As for football, terraces may be quiet for some time to come. No more happy huddles of celebration. No more queueing for pies and crushes of supporters leaving early when their team goes two goals down. Oh, and face masks in club colours.