Coronavirus and Intimacy

While corona's impact on physical wellbeing is common knowledge, less has been written about its devastating impact on interpersonal relationships.

Whether or not we vaccinate, whether we’ve been infected already, whether we’ve never been exposed to this rapidly mutating virus, corona is in our bodies. For over a year, this viral disease has been stuck in our organs, our souls, our movement and gestures, in our instinct to recoil from people who approach us. We are afraid and alert, terrified of closeness. We’ve learned this over a long process of internalization: our long march with corona can be measured by the shock we feel when we see movies and television shows filmed before the pandemic, with “crazy” people not social distancing or wearing a mask.

Corona isn’t simply a medical or economic disaster. From the moment it came into the world it has operated in the interpersonal space, unraveling textures and separating hands. The virus passes between young people and old, between a couple thinking of going on a date, between passers-by on the street. It neutralizes the libidinal, sensual tension that is the foundation of human interaction. Existence in the shadow of corona is libido-free; in its grip, a person turns themselves into a locked-down area: a body that protects itself and sequesters itself from the world.

One might think that social distancing would make our surroundings less intrusive and invasive, but it seems that the opposite is true. Acts of violence in the public sphere aren’t declining, and sometimes it seems like they’re increasing. Even in spaces with social distancing, violence breaks out, perhaps because interpersonal contact there lacks intimacy and refinement.

Beyond the tangible harm to the lives of millions, corona damages the gentle border between people, what we call culture. Culture is the seam line that holds people together and apart at the same time, allows them to be close enough without dissolving into one another, and distant enough without coming to loneliness and alienation. One can think of this seam zone— which has been terribly damaged during the pandemic by the numerous lockdowns and quarantine instructions—through the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “transitional space”: an area that isn’t you and isn’t the other but is the potential between you, which allows for creation, fantasy, and play. Maybe that’s why the world of art was the first to be hurt by the pandemic, and will probably be the last to recover from it.

Corona harms our children. It influences them negatively, even if it isn’t actually a health risk to most of them. For a year, outside their homes, they haven’t seen people hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or patting one another on the back. The child sees this ruined reality and internalizes it: their bodies subconsciously draw sensory conclusions about the danger of closeness and intimate boundaries. In the absence of the ruffle of the hair of the hug, as in the past, in the presence of their grandparents they are now wary; every touch is delayed and accompanied by questions regarding the danger of infection.

Affectionate touches are now accompanied with hesitation or instinctively recoiling, double takes during which people quickly carry out a risk assessment. These are carried out seemingly by adults alone, but express themselves in gestures and are registered on the child’s skin. They are engraved in the child’s soul, leaving them unsure of their entitlement to loving gestures.

For children, masks on people’s faces have long since become second nature. Corona is like a language they were born with and don’t ask questions of. It’s not foreign to them—soon, they will work with it better than their parents. They will navigate its corridors competently, they will adapt to the common technological communications systems which manage social distancing, and will find themselves impatiently explaining the secrets of this language to the adults who find themselves lost in a new world.

In his book Lashon HaRa (Am Oved, 2000), the philosopher Adi Ophir writes that “a problem is a requisite of the subject position” and adds that “whoever has a problem occupies ipso facto the subject position, and her preoccupation with it plays an important role in shaping her as a subject.” But the child of our time doesn’t understand that the reality of life under the shadow of the pandemic is abnormal. The strictures of wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing—all proclaimed in signs at the school entrance—are assumed to be natural. In the face of the pandemic the child doesn’t constitute a subject, and s/he is established as an object of its consequences. Only when corona vanishes from the landscape of the child’s life will the alternate reality be revealed to them retroactively, and they will realize that they were living under the influence of the virus.

Like the gods in Yehuda Amichai’s famous poem, corona takes less pity on schoolchildren than on toddlers in kindergarten. Teenagers suffer even more, since they knew a reality before corona, and because they have long since stepped into the realm of culture. Corona has stopped those who had just begun to leave their homes and form meaningful friendships in their tracks. Without school, a child told me recently, there’s no point in copying in a test. Without the schoolyard and the corridor, the lesson and the study material taught in it become one object. In the face of distance learning in front of the computer, the material is stripped from its context and left standing under the sum of its parts. The material passes from teacher to pupil without shortage and without excess, lacking its ability to charm and lacking its “meaninglessness”—that is, the possibility to enforce on the world layers that aren’t only useful.

Corona harms young people and adults alike, and in ways that aren’t directly connected to health risks and economic uncertainty. It harms the first kiss, love stories, and lost loves. Many hearts are left full and lonely. Many meetings are held on Zoom; but “Zoom” is a verbal inversion of the truth because the meeting is based on distance. The dialogue between screen and screen brings people together mostly through words, lacking the tension and claim to closeness, warmth, and movement.

Corona is the most all-embracing threat in the world. Much has been written about the millions who met their lonely deaths in hospital wards, without the presence of their loved ones in their final moments. Much has been written about the adults sequestered alone for months in their homes. But in reality, it doesn’t matter if for someone corona is a seasonal flu receiving exaggerated media coverage, or a malicious conspiracy of stakeholders. For even those who want to rebel against the lockdown decrees and give up on social distancing and vaccinations—these people aren’t free from its influence. Those revolting against government decisions and the medical establishment find themselves in a relationship with them.

Sometimes it seems that the virus operates as a prism, replicating more and more cutting points, splitting and distancing people. It’s clear that it can destroy much through the illness itself and through the controversy around “the medicine”: more than the public struggles over the question of the lockdown and the practice of quarantine, the fault line that recently began to divide society stretches between opponents of the vaccine and its supporters. It’s a cleft that crosses sectors and classes, leaving a heavy residue. What should an employee who is hesitant about getting vaccinated do with an employer who compels him to do so?

Again, if so, corona stimulates disquiet that bubbles at the bottom of the interpersonal field. Presumably, disputes regarding the question of the vaccination—its safety and effectiveness— will return and come up in the public sphere. People will continue to divide and to confront. And sometimes the oppressing question regarding the vaccine will arise between a person and himself: one day they decide so and the day after the other way, turning and wrestling with the question of their responsibility for their life and the lives of their loved ones.

For a year, corona has nested in the body of the sick like in the body of the healthy. It is embedded in the flesh, in movement and in memory, whether we have been infected or whether we have not. Sometimes it seems that only animals haven’t been harmed by it, although the slight apprehension that they may carry the virus led long ago to the slaughter of millions of them. Either way, it seems that people adamantly refuse to look at the pandemic’s point of origin, bound with how we use animals. How can we vaccinate against the virus without being able to directly establish our responsibility for its conception? Regarding the connection between corona and animals, it occasionally seems that the conversion has been completed, and something has claimed its affront. Can we truly ignore the sad irony raising by an epidemic that began with the animals locked inside the horror of their corrals, and ended with the loneliness of people locked inside the prisons of their homes?

For the animal destined to be consumed, the pain, horror, and sorrow have always answered Ophir’s definition of “the scandal of unjustified excessiveness that simmers in the heart of being”. We—who have forced millions of animals to be born into a life of incarceration, abuse, and finally extermination, alone in the tearful end of their days—now beg for an end to the epidemic of human seclusion. The body will remember the coronavirus long after it’s gone; it is possible that it will only recover when humankind establish a new responsibility toward the scandal of the unnecessary suffering of the other, and the scandal of the excess of mankind’s pleasures.

And in meeting with a friend on a street corner, as they shall reach out for a handshake, fingers extended toward you, the palm turning to you in a manner that can be only interpreted as an invitation for touch. This is the touch that before the pandemic served to establish encounters. And you shall look, hesitatingly, at the outstretched hand and understand that this spontaneous physical gesture already belongs to “the real,” to the moment of shock. And even if you return this invitation and shake their hand, it shall already exist in a space of alienation. This is what corona has finally done to us. This is what we’ve done to ourselves. And then you shall continue on your way, the mask shall return the warmth of your breath to you, reflecting again your loneliness among people.

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