“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” — Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor in 1978 (and a follow up about HIV a decade later), arguing that our way of talking about illness (her primary example was cancer) demonizes our relationship with our bodies, positions us as victims and paralyses us from making thoughtful and informed choices.
Sontag keeps coming up for me as we navigate the world of a potential pandemic. Most of the people in my world — and at this moment, all of the blog authors — are in the kingdom of the well. We are (mostly) not immuno-compromised, financially sound, and have access to functioning healthcare. But the all-pervasive, constant flood of updates about covid19 has located us metaphorically in the kingdom of the sick. And this is causing some serious paradox and disorientation for me.
Quick note: I’m of two minds about writing this post. Like everyone I know, I’m feeling overwhelmed by the whole topic, and would actually just like to think and write about enjoying handstand practice and whether ice cream is a good idea or not. On the other hand, NOT talking about it feels like I’m trying to enjoy a peaceful bike ride while pretending there’s no pack of dogs howling around me. Everything seems to get mediated back to this topic — my work is up in the air, so I’ve had to change plans for to travel in May; I work in healthcare (though I’m not a clinician or a scientist), so every work conversation comes back to screening, or whether there are enough masks, or meetings that are postponed for “pandemic planning.” Friends in other parts of the world (Italy, Seattle) are experiencing shut downs, being asked to work from home, etc. Everyone is trying to find good answers in the face of high uncertainty.
The very purpose of this blog is to foster a lifelong inquiry into what it means to have a feminist relationship with our bodies, with fitness and with health. And I keep finding myself critiquing the discourse around covid19 and my own response to it from my foundational lens of intersectional feminism. So here are a few of my encounters and my response.
My first encounter: stigma and racism. A couple of weeks ago, when most of the cases were still located in Wuhan, a friend posted on social media about “coughing while Asian,” describing an incident on public transit where she’d been stonily glared at while coughing into her scarf. I was unsettled — though I guess not surprised — when I watched a dozen people pop into her feed to tell her that wasn’t fair because she was “clearly Canadian” and didn’t look like she’d just come from China. Right, good Asians (assimilated, whatever that means?) and bad Asians (what even is that?). Time for an allyship moment in the comments section.
My second encounter: a more complicated exploration of the feminist stance on economic impact. I was talking to a friend who noted that she had canceled a planned workout class because she had cold symptoms; the gym responded that cancellations are subject to forfeiting the class fee. “Shouldn’t they be encouraging people to stay home if they feel sick?”, she wondered.
As a general stance, of course this makes sense — we should be encouraging people to stay home if they’re sick, advocate for paid sick leave, and, if we live in a part of the world without funded healthcare, waive the fees for testing and treatment of coronavirus and other similar illnesses. So far so good. But how does this theoretical stance play out when the person you are asking to bear the cost is a small business owner, like an independent gym? And what are the ethical implications if someone chooses to take advantage of a virus-spawned discount, like cheap flights? And do those ethics change if this is a person for whom this presents a rarely affordable opportunity to travel?
My third area of musing: empowerment and choice. This is the biggest one for me. The essence of what we are all engaged in in this community is that in our relationships with our bodies, we are self-defining what strength means to us, what powerful means to us, what fit means to us. We critique dominant discourse about weight, about beauty standards, about gender, about aging, about cultural expectations. We are developing a new and agile vocabulary around personal choice-making.
And yet, I’ve noticed a pressure in the public discourse around covid19 to take blanket stances about how other people should behave. (Again: locating us all in the kingdom of the ill). Of course — and I will repeat this multiple times — if you are in a place with an outbreak and you are asked by public health authorities to stay home or avoid gatherings, you should do that. But if you are not, that blanket rule doesn’t apply.
It’s true that “social distancing” — limiting movement and large gatherings — is one of the primary means of containing a highly transmittable illness. And as ethical and accountable members of our communities, if we are asked to stay home, we should. But if we don’t have personal risk, and if the public health voices are asking us to be thoughtful, we shouldn’t be making those decisions for other people.
In my world, one of the biggest discussions is about traveling, with many voices suggesting that the ethical thing to do right now would be to limit travel. For me, it’s an important thing to consider — but not a position I want to take on behalf of other people. Again, awareness of my privilege. For some people (like me), travel is a common experience — for others, it’s something to plan for years for. I have yet another friend with an upcoming honeymoon, a holiday she’s looked forward to and saved for for years. People have said to her “you should cancel your plans.” This stance means they’re not seeing her a person, but as a disease vector. Which, right now, she is not. As I write this, we have zero community-based incidents of covid19 transmission in Canada. Her plans are not to go to any of the places currently experiencing a significant outbreak.
This will possibly change, but at the moment, any risk related to my friend is purely theoretical. The official stance from public health voices in Canada right now is that the biggest concern about travel is being disrupted and possibly quarantined — not about contracting the virus. So doesn’t that come right back to thoughtful personal choice?
Of course we need to be informed and cautious — we need to track the emerging science, we need to speak up in the face of racism and stigma, we need to be thoughtful about the economic impact of global and local disruption, and we need to support the public health system and response that limits the spread. We need to make our own informed choices about travel, and basketball games, and staying home if we feel ill. We should practice self-care if we need to limit our exposure to the barrage of info. And most of all, we need to be kind to each other — not to let our own anxiety shut down other people’s processes of making personal, informed choices.
Uncertainty is hard, and we want rules. That’s natural. But the vast majority of us are actually living in the land of the well. And we need to make our own thoughtful, informed choices about how we enact that wellness at this point in history.
And of course, wash your damned hands. But that’s just good practice any time.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede; next week she’ll be back to writing about her SI joint and exploring tricep ring dips.