Perhaps the image of COVID-19 that evokes the deepest fear is that of a person on a ventilator, alone in a hospital room. It is a visceral image, the isolated body as victim to the virus. But embodied social experiences go beyond hospital rooms. Social routines and the risks associated with care work all produce physical changes in a pandemic, and they do so in ways that reproduce inequality.
Social solidarity is often affirmed through rituals that require bodily copresence (Collins 2004). The feeling of sharing breath, standing together in common cause is part and parcel of group cohesion. The strain caused by limiting identity- and membership-affirming rituals is evident in the emotional and mental unrest reported online. Protests of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders leverage this social disconnect and facilitate bodily opposition. The physical bodies of protesters standing and shouting together affirm each other, while simultaneously presenting bodily threats to those in at-risk categories.
Rituals of affirmation are lost when folks cannot gather in community. Educational reports from primary schools show that children are expressing unrest related to the sudden lack of physical companionship. Rituals are emerging to address this. First practiced in Spain and Italy, one ritual includes neighbors standing on their balconies to cheer or clap for their health workers at a set time. This is one example of how bodily copresence is still being shared through distancing. Making eye-contact over the top of a mask has become another shared moment of ritual affirmation.
COVID-19’s body count reflects the values placed on different types of bodies (Strings 2019). There is a greater than ten percent difference between the infection and death rate for white non-Hispanic and black non-Hispanic Chicagoans (CDPH 2020). The Mayor’s office recognized the disproportionate relationship between death rates, stating that preexisting conditions among those experiencing other forms of structural inequality resulted in worse outcomes (MPO 2020).
The unequal body cost of work is evident in this pandemic. The labor expected of public facing workers exerts a bodily toll (Kang 2010). Low wage “essential” personnel like store clerks and transit drivers are experiencing higher infection rates and lower rates of health insurance coverage (Schneider and Harknett 2020). They are questioning paying for structural responses to this pandemic with their lives.
Bodily labor in professional care work is especially risky. Historically, care workers bear the cost of pandemic work on their bodies (Nkangu et al. 2017). A CDC study of medical infection rates shows a significantly higher infection rate for women in medical professions (MMPH 2020). This suggests women’s bodies, frequently working in direct care providing positions, face higher risks. The global shortage of personal protective gear for nurses, janitors, doctors, and other first responders contributes to this bodily risk. As Bonnie Castillo, writes, “When nurses and doctors get sick from this virus who is going to be left to take care of the public?” (NNU2020). The bodily cost of care work impacts eldercare, childcare, and online employment at the same time (Gertsel 2000). Care workers must risk their own family’s health to provide care to others.
The excess exposure, the need for contact, and the lack of care are all factors that directly relate to the physical experiences of COVID-19. The isolated bodies of the ill and the unclaimed bodies of the dead are more quantifiable, but the embodied experiences of clapping or organizing in protest must not be overlooked. Bodies in isolation, reintegration, and work help provide context for this pandemic.