Social distancing and privilege – looking at Covid-19 through an intersectional lens
I sit alone on my couch in the quiet and warm flat that I share with my partner.
The roads are quiet, except for the occasional truck that delivers goods to the shopping complex adjacent to where we live. Sometimes a car darts by and the sound of rain patters down to remind me that Mother Nature continues to do her work. Otherwise, this small suburb in Randburg is still.
As I sit and ponder this, I am aware of how many privileges and luxuries this illuminates. There is food in my fridge, we are able to afford this flat, I can live with my partner, and we both have cars in order to get food or healthcare if we need to. We both have enough space to work, we both have working Wi-Fi and laptops, and we have the means to see this out through steady incomes, which we get from jobs that allow us to work from home. Also we have social support through our families, friends and colleagues, and I am able to afford Zoom sessions with my psychologist every week.
Yet these privileges are often not thought of consciously as they lie beneath the surface of many people’s lives. Because these are our lived experiences and realities, we can purport to know them. But when it comes to the realities of other people, people who are not as privileged, people who are oppressed even, we can be out of touch. To get in touch we need to imagine, to be mindful, and to empathize.
As news reports flood in of other areas, especially in what are termed ‘townships’, I have noticed the narratives and images that have emerged. How some are not able to social distance due to lack of space in their homes, lines outsides offices to collect grants, people loitering in the streets, clashes with police and the SANDF, and limited or no access to finances as many rely on unsteady or unreliable employment.
Not just townships feature in these narratives, but Johannesburg city spaces too, where the familiar white, blue and gold of police vehicles features in videos uploaded to social media and the news. Images and videos of violence between citizens and police flash past my eyes and I find myself unnerved by this.
All of these news reports have made it plainly clear to me the disparities between communities’ experiences of this global pandemic. I have seen people stockpile their trollies and empty shelves, disobey orders to go jogging or walk their dogs, and work from office spaces with multiple monitors, visiting well stocked fridges and making bread from recipes on Instagram. These speak to those in more affluent and privileged communities. The lockdown has had some effect there, but many are still able to function in relative comfort.
However, I think of those who live in small spaces with large families, who won’t get any income this month besides the grant of an elderly member. I think of how hand sanitizer is something you have seen before as a luxury not a necessity, and how you are only able to buy a basket of groceries from bare shelves to sustain you and your family throughout the next month.
The pandemic affects everyone, but not in the same way.
I refer here to intersectionality. This is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to explain the varying identities that exist within one person. She highlights how an individual might experience forms of oppression or privilege based on these varying identities (Dhamoon, 2011). These identity factors include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender, and many others.
So one individual might simultaneously experience privilege and oppression. For example, I am an Indian, female, middle class, tertiary educated, queer, and cisgender individual. Now on some of those identity markers I am privileged, through being middle class, tertiary educated, and cisgender. On others markers I experience oppression or lack of privilege, through being a woman, Indian, and queer. These aspects have historically brought oppression, discrimination and sometimes even violence. So privilege and oppression work together in complex ways, ways which are unique to each person.
As a result of this, each of us experiences and views this pandemic differently and in such multifaceted ways: intersectionality is a lens through which others see us and a lens through which we see the world. It would thus be counterintuitive to generalize about communities and make assumptions about people based on what one is able to discern on the surface. Even I am guilty of this, as what I write is based on what I have discerned through news reports and articles on different communities. My lenses not only inform which article I choose to draw on, but which articles I even see. We are all guilty of this; we reveal our “positionality”. Of course we try to unlearn what society has molded us to be and we think (or should think!) about our lives, positions and biases every day. This unlearning process is painful and hard. We have to challenge our misconceptions and our lack of self-awareness every day and in every interaction.
This is so telling now when we are surrounded and engulfed by fake news, WhatsApp messages, viral videos, and news reports around Covid-19 and its impact upon humans. We need to be mindful and aware. But this is not enough, we need to channel this into action. We need to reflect, speak about and discuss this, we need to challenge, mindfully. We should be respectful of others, not make assumptions, and share with others and not stockpile for ourselves.
It is within our own intersectional selves that we find such complexities; humans are nuanced and tricky, and yet this is what makes us fascinating.
It is in these discrepancies, privileges and oppressions that we find tensions. We cannot assume a lack of information or education means people act in a particular way; there are always other factors at play, such as communal and cultural factors. From my outsider experiences of townships, they seem to be hubs of social activity, entrepreneurship, bonding, togetherness, sense of community, philanthropy, kindness, and liveliness. There are taxis, cars and people everywhere, filling the roads and streets with life. This is the everyday experience of South Africans and when a nationwide lockdown is announced, of course this will make the transition incredibly difficult for many.
That is what has made this entire process difficult. We have had to go from a communal, social and bustling society, to a completely quiet, ghostly country, where we can only exist in the smaller spaces of our homes. This has been a dramatic and painful shift. For everyone in different ways. Even for those who have to work, their lives have been impacted in drastic ways. They have to work harder and more carefully, they live with anxieties of leaving their homes and with possibly being infected.
There is an unease as well as an eerie calm in the country. But this does not mean that we should play into and fall prey to it. We need to be proactive and reflective. It is not enough to simply acknowledge difference, but we need to build awareness of the consequences of difference, and make this part of our everyday lives.
Dhamoon, R.K., 2011. Considerations on mainstreaming intersectionality. Political Research Quarterly, 64(1), pp.230-243.
My name is Vickashnee Nair and I am a 26-year-old Indian female originally born in Lenasia. I joined CSA&G as a researcher for the Just Leadership Programme in 2020. I have completed my Masters in Community Based Counselling Psychology through the University of Witwatersrand and I am working towards becoming a registered Counselling Psychologist. My interests include sexualities, gender, mental health, community and health psychology, and race. I have had experiences working in therapy and assessment in various communities, including the student population.