The Malta Independent 13 July 2024, Saturday
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Physical distance, social contact

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 18 March 2021, 08:18 Last update: about 4 years ago

The high numbers and the respective reproduction rate of Covid-19 are not mere abstractions. Behind the numbers there are deaths and there is suffering.

Even if a person or their loved ones have not been affected by this pestilence, it is all over the place in our collective imagination.

In the meantime, how is Maltese society reacting and adapting to the new, inevitable, measures announced by the Government? There are various ways of looking at this, ranging from value surveys to economic indicators, from observation of behaviour to the politicization of the situation. The latter ranges from constructive debate to petty finger pointing and sloganeering.

Since the latest round of measures were announced, one could note that areas that were previously busy with leisure pursuits, such as shopping and dining, are now a commercial shadow of what they were in the recent past. But at the same time, people are still frequenting the outdoors. Some walk and others jog. Others buy a coffee and chat on a bench. Some visit the countryside; others walk alongside beaches. Cars are still present, though traffic is much less congested. Food delivery motorcycles are by now a permanent fixture on Malta’s streetscapes.

Much social activity is obviously taking place indoors. Kids are busy connecting with their friends through gaming and other online activities also influenced by the new wave of remote schooling. Families, friends and colleagues connect through video calls, and the social media platforms like Facebook are buzzing with activity. Various forms of activity, ranging from remote working to eating are becoming more frequent within households. In the meantime, some of us despair, others adapt and make the most of the situation.

Presumably, there are various forms of activity which are less visible. The task of sociologists, policy makers, journalists and others interested in the investigation of society is to identify such activities. For example, last year the scrouge of domestic violence was highlighted in various countries experiencing lockdowns.

The Malta Independent recently reported on some social realities which are being experienced in Malta. For example, I was struck by the interview with Nathan Brimmer, co-owner of The Pub and the Grokk Cafe in Valletta. Together with his co-owner he invested lots of money with the hope that 2020 would be a record year. The pandemic ruined their plans, and their business is struggling to survive. Similar experiences took place amongst many other employers and workers in many other businesses. Hence the importance of initiatives such as the wage supplement.

The devastating social impact on the hospitality sector was recently analysed by sociologist Thomas Thurnell in The Conversation. He was writing about the UK, but much of what he says can be transposed to Malta. Here, Thurnell makes us aware about how so many people are missing pub culture, which is such an important form of social interaction. Similarly, the restrictions or closures of other social spaces have had an impact on people’s social connections, often resulting in loneliness.

In this regard, The Malta Independent recently interviewed psychotherapist Ian Refalo and counsellor Karl Grech, who respectively highlighted various realities related to loneliness in our society. For example, they referred to the anxiety related to not having a date in sight as to when the pandemic will pass, and to the increase in suicide rates and suicidal behaviour.  

Amongst the most affected groups, they referred to elderly citizens, children, people in abusive relationships, people with mental health problems and frontliners, who each face their own respective challenges.

How can we tackle such realities? The easiest thing would be to expect Government to solve all our problems. Surely, Government has a duty to intervene through policy and research tools, and in various instances this is being done, despite shortcomings in areas such as enforcement. But just imagine the situation had there not been wage supplements, medical care and the roll-out of vaccines.

At the same time, it is imperative that state institutions ranging from government entities to local councils target investment in community and social capital, creating initiatives which help tackle loneliness, isolation and exclusion. Civil society organisations, social scientists and volunteers can help devise and implement policies in this regard.

This takes us to a recent article by sociologist Syed Farid Alatas, who was writing in Global Dialogue, the magazine of the International Sociological Association.

Alatas reminds his readers that sociology investigates ‘the interaction, cooperation, and association among human beings, and how social factors play a role in their development’. He then proceeds to ask: what does this tell us about social distancing?

Here, he says that what we are really practicing is physical distancing, though this can coincide with social distancing. In Alatas’ words, ‘social distance refers to the lack of social contact, regardless of physical distance or proximity…. People may be physically distant but socially proximate or intimate, that is, having social contact…. On the other hand, it is possible to be physically close without having social contact. In this case, physical proximity coexists with social distance.’

An example of the former is when family members are physically separated but in close contact for example through video calls. An example of the latter is when people go shopping to the supermarket but are otherwise not in social contact. Going back to the challenge of loneliness, you can therefore have a situation of hidden loneliness amidst physical proximity.

Hence in a context where physical distancing is encouraged and enforced to protect people’s health, it is imperative that social contact is encouraged and subject to social investment, within the limits of physical distancing.

In the meantime, ‘The Sociology of Covid-19, book launch, webinar session’ will take place on Wednesday 24th March. This is being co-organised by the Department of Sociology at the University of Malta, the Malta Sociological Association and Routledge, who published a series of books on the matter. More details on this public event can be found at www.maltasociologicalassociation.com .

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta.

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