The Hollow Privilege of Immobility in the Time of Covid-19

by Jennifer Ruth Hosek, July 2nd 2020

Culturally-speaking, humanness is often equated with the freedom to move. Accepting the dance. Getting out of this place. Following the North Star. Mobility often means privilege. However, in this pandemic, our ability to stay put is suddenly where privilege lies. The value of mobility has altered with the pandemic. Rather than dancing together, we are living lonely and most of us don’t like it. Covid-19 is showing us that the exclusive, hyper-individualism of extreme mobility is not only dangerous and unethical but also unenjoyable.

An athletic, feminist type, I surprised myself by purchasing my first expensive high heels spontaneously at fifty. My salary could now cover a taxi if my shoes demanded no rainy-day bicycling. But why was I buying the privilege of restricting my mobility through this “shrinked and pinked” version of a middle-aged consumer-rebellious sports car?

Mobility studies scholarship has robustly shown how mobility expresses privilege and vice versa.[1]

Enter the pandemic.

As have other hyper-mobile diseases before it, Covid-19 is inverting the paradigm. Nowadays, privilege is expressed in immobility. Those who can afford to stay home.[2] According to scientific best practices and governmental directives this makes good sense. Self-isolating immobility expresses good citizenship, neighborliness, and ethics. It furthers our common aim of flattening the curve. Those of us who can afford to stay home are doing their part. We may think gratefully about our privilege as we model our good citizenship and “stay the f* at home” as Samuel L. Jackson says.[3]

At the same time, the majority of humanity cannot participate in such voluntary immobility. Refugees, migrants, and even supererogating protesters, all variously compelled to stillness and motion, figure importantly here. Furthermore, increasingly, people are moving in the stead of the privileged. It is their fever of motion that is meeting the needs of our society and the desires of the privileged in our new-found immobility. It is their surge of underprivileged mobility that delivers essential services such as garbage pickup and much less essential services such as home delivery of trivial consumer goods, goods which our newly-lived immobility has finally given us the time to order on-line.

The general public is increasingly acknowledging professionals whose mobility is part of fighting the pandemic. From the west coast of North America to islands of the Caribbean, folks applaud as health care workers change shifts. Residents in 22 countries and counting cheer the arrival of teams of Cuban doctors and nurses in recognition of these brigades’ intrepid mobilization to international hotspots. Cuba’s people-over-profit health system and its well-trained workers have made this economically impoverished country’s struggle against the virus one of the most successful nationally and internationally.[4] Themselves well-paid, Cuban professionals even give twice over. When their international assistance is not provided to the asker-country gratis, a sizable portion of their hard-currency remuneration flows into public coffers to purchase imported necessities for Cuba’s residents.[5] Medical personnel are our frontline workers. And, more gradually, we recognize, so too are our firefighters, police, and repairpersons. And, even more gradually, and perhaps uncomfortably, we recognize, so too are the warehouse laborers, the slaughterhouse and field workers, the delivery drivers, and the grocery store employees moving around us.

Once we acknowledge this latter group of laborers as frontline, our immobility becomes just that little bit less comfortable, as we see it as a little bit less noble. These workers are not mobile based upon their expertise in their chosen profession. They are mobile because they need employment, whether or not they are simultaneously in high-risk categories. The aim of our immobility is to flatten the curve by keeping ourselves safe. Yet, if the probability of contracting severe illness were the decisive factor in who is performing semi-skilled essential services that involve mobility, should others be doing this labor? Would hospitals loads not decrease if young, healthy white-collar workers took the place of young-at-heart grandmothers with underlying health conditions who are disinfecting our shopping carts or the undocumented delivery persons who cannot afford a trip to the emergency room for fear of deportation? It will be interesting to see if the vision of a CoronaCorps of university-age students will gain traction or if the financial exigencies of the corporate Northern university will force education to continue as usual, quality of remote education or perils of outbreak notwithstanding.[6]

In today’s world in which the virus has made so many of us so grateful for immobility and our ability to do the right thing by simple performance of it, there are millions of others for whom both immobility and mobility present impossible choices and even deadly peril. Sweeping laws restricting mobility are often impossible for the underprivileged to obey. An e-chat with friends living in Panama City confirms that the two hour limit on time outdoors makes it impossible for poor people to shop, as lines are long and transit times even longer. Furthermore, men and women are allowed out on alternating days, which puts gender non-conforming people in a range of dangerous situations.[7] In poor countries with authoritarian-style governments such as India, food vendors and delivery people encounter police violence even as self-isolating customers need their services.[8] Moreover, such violence is commonly unequally applied against visible minorities throughout the world. Afghanistan and Nigeria are some of the many places in which people are having to choose between earning money for food and following stay-at-home orders.[9]

In parts of the global North, government mandates have been less strict, more differentiated, and arguably more attuned to consumer demand. However, it does not follow that semi-skilled workers of the front lines are freely choosing their mobility. Instead, they are weighing the risks and choosing a paycheck despite the dangers. Very few employers will pay them for not coming to work,[10] even if they are in high-risk groups.[11] So far, teen-aged Spring Breakers who have come through the illness have only stepped up to the plate with mea culpas.

However, this is not simply a mea culpa story. For, although many of us practicing privileged immobility feel uncomfortable as we pay others to engage in high-risk mobility to service our needs, we also feel the discomforts of immobility itself. My field research plans are on hold, I cannot visit friends and family, I cannot attend events, I have no occasion at which to wear my high heels. Whether real sacrifices or minor discontents, these are not fun facts. For all its privilege, this privileged immobility of ours is but the proverbial any port in a world-wide storm.

And this reality: that our current immobility is profoundly suboptimal even for the most privileged among us, is driving us towards what needs to be done.

For it turns out that our long-time, privileged hypermobility is a significant contributing factor in this hyper-mobile pandemic.[12] Carbon-fueled vehicle emissions are a primary cause of climate change and climate change is a major cause of new disease spread.[13] This pandemic is showing us in no uncertain terms that hyper-mobility is untenable. And Sunday drivers immobilized in their tiny metal boxes revving it down the road these days with nowhere to go suggest that it is also simply no fun. The hollow immobility of the privileged in the time of Covid-19 reveals that flattening the differentials among human mobilities are in the interests of all of us.

That this truth is not new may have been somewhat forgotten recently in the thrill of cheap flights and overnight delivery. For instance, in a 1970s that was primed for alternatives not only by pollution and hyper-consumerism, but also by the oil crisis and economic depression, expansive thinkers such as Ivan Illich showed the direct relationship between the distribution of energy and the distribution of social equity. Equivalent distribution furthered environmental and human health. “Calories are only biologically and socially healthy as long as they stay within the narrow range that separates enough from too much.”[14] Specifically of carbon fuel-based transportation, Illich writes, “High speed is the critical factor which makes transportation socially destructive. A true choice among political systems and of desirable social relations is possible only where speed is restrained. Participatory democracy demands low energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.”[15] Even today, jet travel remains largely the domain of the hyper-mobile 1%, while their movement directly impacts the mobility of others who walk barefoot. Unequal energy distribution is not only uncomfortably unfair, but negatively impacts the life quality of even the hyper-mobile among us–as our current situation shows in spades. Much of our motorized lives are spent in non-places[16] as we get from coveted point A to coveted point B and while working to afford such journeys. Illich calculated that the average American male of his day spent 1600 hours a year in the service of his privately owned vehicle. Inequitable mobility is both unfair and unfun.

This pandemic is laying bare the profound inequities of contemporary human society. It is showing us that we must fundamentally revamp societal infrastructures. It is simultaneously showing us that inequitable mobility—and its correlate inequitable immobility–is unfair, unfun, and unsustainable.

All of which points to a solution.

Now is the time to work towards profound redistribution of our mobility assets. Working together, governments must deploy fiscal policies—such as debt buyback, quantitative easing, and job guarantees—and large-scale, labour-intensive projects—such as transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, improving public transit, and repairing public infrastructure—to resuscitate the economy while overcoming this disease and mitigating recurrences.[17] They must work to flatten the mobility differential globally. The painful realities of the new mobile order in the time of Covid-19 demonstrate that lives of more equitably distributed, moderate mobility are both more sustainable and more worth sustaining.

Endnotes

[1] E.g., Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (New York: Verso, 2018); Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío (eds), Elite Mobilities (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[2] Jörn Boewe and Johannes Schulten, “Noch mehr schuften. Arbeit. Schlecht bezahlte Dienstleister bekommen während der Corona-Krise Applaus vom Balkon, während ihre Jobs noch härter werden,” Der Freitag, Ausgabe 14/2020, 6 April 2020, https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/noch-mehr-schuften; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury,” The New York Times, 3 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html

[3] Samuel L. Jackson, “Stay The F*ck At Home,” Video,1:28, uploaded 2 April 2020,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvB9ftAHpwc

[4] Michele Charlton, “Ask an Expert: John Kirk on the global role of Cuban medical personnel during COVID‑19.” Dal News. 22 May 2020. https://www.dal.ca/news/2020/05/22/ask-an-expert–john-kirk-on-the-role-of-cuban-medical-personnel-.html; Ailynn Torres Santana and María José Espinosa Carrillo, “Cuba’s Policies to Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security.  https://issuu.com/wcapsnet/docs/cuba_s_policies_to_confront_the_covid-19_pandemic_/1?ff&showOtherPublicationsAsSuggestions=true&hideShareButton=true&fbclid=IwAR0OjULmgxnslwB-Lw9Dgjc4-1yIOMyTX3rA_bCVl3BWeMXFFTVMAElQY3A. Cuba’s international medical school also trains US doctors, a fact that is serving particularly underprivileged people living in the US particularly well. “Cuban-trained Doctor Helps Mobilize Pandemic Response in Her South Bronx Community.” John Tarleton. The Indypendent. 11 April 2020.  https://indypendent.org/2020/04/cuban-trained-doctor-helps-mobilize-pandemic-response-in-her-south-bronx-community/?fbclid=IwAR2axvjKIoR11HvuCX65nuoSvyM4FpOPe_xOHlOQ2X0m_hp1b4lxNlf6he4

[5] “Cuban Docs Fighting Coronavirus Around World, Defying US.” The Associated Press. New York Times. 3 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/03/world/europe/ap-cb-virus-outbreak-cuban-doctors.html. “Cuba Has Sent 2,000 Doctors and Nurses Overseas to Fight Covid-19.” Ed Augustin. The Nation. May 22, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/cuba-doctors-covid-19/. For detailed and factual accounts of the human rather than profit-centered Cuban medical system and its tremendous and cost-effective successes nationally and internationally, see, e.g., Don Fitz, Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020; John Kirk, Healthcare without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism. Miami: University Press of Florida, 2015; Simon Reid-Henry, The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010; and Helen Yaffe, We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

[6] Ellen Ruppel Shell, “An Urgent Time for a Year Off Campus: College students have a chance to serve their country. Bring on the CoronaCorps,” The Atlantic. 30 May 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/college-students-have-chance-serve-their-country/612364/

[7] “Panama announces separate quarantine days for men and women to help combat spread of COVID-19,” CNN Wire on KTLA 5 News, 1 April 2020, https://ktla.com/news/coronavirus/panama-announces-separate-quarantine-days-for-men-and-women-to-help-combat-spread-of-covid-19/

[8] “Coronavirus lockdown in India: ‘Beaten and abused for doing my job’,” BBC News. 28 March 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52063286

[9]  Stefanie Glinski, “‘No profit, no food’: lockdown in Kabul prompts hunger fears,” The Guardian. 1 April 2020,  https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/01/no-profit-no-food-lockdown-in-kabul-prompts-hunger-fears; “Nigerians Fear Starvation as Africa’s Largest City Enters Lockdown,” Democracy Now. 1 April 2020. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/1/headlines/nigerians_fear_starvation_as_africas_largest_city_enters_lockdown

[10] Leigh Osofsky, “Striking Amazon, Instacart employees reveal how a basic economic principle could derail our ability to combat the coronavirus,” The Conversation, 7 April 2020, https://theconversation.com/striking-amazon-instacart-employees-reveal-how-a-basic-economic-principle-could-derail-our-ability-to-combat-the-coronavirus-135618

[11] The regional train system in Germany a laudable exception. Boewe and Schulten, “Noch mehr schuften,” https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/noch-mehr-schuften

[12] Sonia Shah, “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.” The Nation. 18 February 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/coronavirus-habitat-loss/

[13] E.g., Anthony McMichael, Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations. (New York; Oxford University Press, 2017); “Trump Finalizes Rollback of Mileage Standards, Gutting Efforts to Stem Climate Crisis,” Democracy Now. 01 April 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/1/headlines/trump_finalizes_rollback_of_mileage_standards_gutting_efforts_to_stem_climate_crisis

[14] Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 8.

[15] Illich, 12.

[16] Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (New York: Verso. 2009).

[17] Pepe Egger, “Nach Corona: Die Finanzmärkte entmachten,” Der Freitag. Ausgabe 12/2020, 19 März 2020. https://www.freitag.de/autoren/pep/die-finanzmaerkte-entmachten; Florian Dorn, Sahamoddin Khailaie, Marc Stöckli, Sebastian Binder, Berit Lange, Andreas Peichl, Patrizio Vanella, Timo Wollmershäuser,  Clemens Fuest und Michael Meyer-Hermann, “Das gemeinsame Interesse von Gesundheit und Wirtschaft: Eine Szenarienrechnung zur Eindämmung der Corona-Pandemie,” ifo Schnelldienst Digital. 6 2020. 13. Mai 2020. Eine gemeinsame Studie des ifo Instituts (ifo) und des Helmholtz-Zentrums für Infektionsforschung (HZI). https://www.ifo.de/DocDL/sd-2020-digital-06-ifo-helmholtz-wirtschaft-gesundheit-corona_1.pdf

Bio

Jennifer Ruth Hosek is professor of transnational German Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, where she is affiliated with Film and Media, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, and the University of Havana exchange. PhD in Comparative Literature at Berkeley; Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford. Publications on a variety of topics including the monograph Sun, Sex, and Socialism: Cuba in the German Imaginary and co-authored anthologies on Berlin and on Christa Wolf. External support from the SSHRC, Berlin Parliament, DAAD, National Coalition of Women in German (WiG), Humboldt, and Mellon. Her article on German documentaries about Havana won a WiG Best Article Prize and is published in three languages. Her open source, open access and free telecollaborative language exchange platform LinguaeLive.ca is available for instructors around the globe to use. One of Dr. Hosek’s current larger projects investigates cinema and anti-petrocultural urban movement and includes the award-winning documentary Rodando en La Habana bicycle stories (with Jaime Santos).

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