Keeping distance…but only physically

A couple of years ago I contracted a nasty type of flu during a trip, when I returned home my partner, having greater awareness than me, implemented some measures to ensure he didn’t get infected. It led to one of the biggest fights we have had. I felt alone and completely rejected by him. It didn’t matter how rational and science-based his explanations were to me. I went into a mini depression and allowed a multitude of negative and irrational thoughts to control my mood. At the end of the short period of distancing, the method worked. He didn’t become sick and the episode became a joke, the ‘quarantine fiasco’.

The psychological toll of not being able to be hugged, touched or physically comforted must be one of the most difficult things to endure during this period for those who have caught Covid or might be worried they did. I can try to imagine what they are feeling right now, based on how my mental frame brought me down a few years ago, but it continues to be an intellectual exercise because things have not yet gotten to that point in Cape Town. We know it will come and I just hope we can deal with this in a way that does not make it harder than it already is to carry this virus which is creating havoc around the world.

Since arriving in Cape Town, I have connected with old friends and made new ones in the process through an initiative called Cape Town Together. It started only a few days ago but its Facebook page already has more than 6,000 members and it has become a place where we are collectively exploring ideas that bring hope and possibility. The idea is simple: help connect people so that solutions can be co-created in the short term and at the neighbourhood level. It is a rapid community response and it is not only infusing me and many others with optimism, it is making me realise that even in cities as unequal and disparate as Cape Town, solidarity is possible.

Given the general state of vulnerability of so many and the fear of what this virus brings, one of the big issues we have discussed is stigma, which can do more damage than the virus itself. Not only because of the psychological impact it has at the individual level, but because of the social consequences as well. There have already been reports of people being targeted for having the virus or being suspected to have it.

How do we then ensure that we deal with this with sensitivity, humanity and solidarity? What mechanisms can we use to encourage each other to focus on building community? There are some helpful international guidelines which can be adapted to our local realities and it is one of the areas that Cape Town Together is working hard to address.

While it is true that we are not in control of how the virus spreads, we can try our best to follow guidelines and suggestions by medical practitioners and government officials and to help our close networks do the same. We can also connect with our neighbours to see if there are ways in which we can support each other. As it has been discussed in various platforms, finding psychosocial support will be essential. Some will come in the form of professional counselling, but as a psychiatrist friend told me once during a time of need, often, just talking to others can go really far. And based on my experience of the last few days, solidarity is the only currency we can rely on because it does not devalue and it is completely renewable.

So today, I invite you to connect with your neighbours, check out Cape Town Together and receive a virtual hug from me. For the foreseeable future that might be the only type we should give or receive, and though they are not the same thing as physical touch, they do get us a step closer to keeping the social fabric that we need in times like this.

We are in this together!

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.