LIVERPOOL: I’ve never been one for going out. As an undergraduate studying in the United Kingdom, Friday nights were Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV nights with my housemates.
Even now, when colleagues ask me out for post-meeting drinks, more often than not, my reply is a Witcher-style, non-confirmatory “hmmm”.
You can tell that I watch too much television.
So when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tells the nation to stay at home, you can be sure I’ll be there to do my part, no matter how long it takes. Toilet paper? Check. Frozen food? Check. Fresh milk? Uh-oh.
With new social distancing measures, many individuals have taken to using home delivery services to get staples. It has become almost impossible to book a delivery slot with major supermarkets, and smaller specialist retailers (like farmshops and dairies) regularly put up signs on their websites saying they are unable to take new customers.
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And that is only if you have the resources and know-how to search for retailers, register an account, navigate your way through shopping baskets and make an online payment.
It is something we in technology-riddled cities like Singapore take for granted. “Why wait? Shut it down! Shut everything down! Order everything online, work from home! Easy.” You hear some netizens say.
But it’s not always so easy.
RECOGNISING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
For many years, scholars across multiple social science disciplines have noted the ever-growing gap between individuals who have access and knowledge to technology (particularly the Internet and all its trappings), and those who do not. They call this the digital divide.
The digital divide can affect individuals and groups in many ways, more so than just being able to order stuff. For example, with the shutting down of university campuses in the UK, many modules have been converted to online learning.
Such conversions bring significant challenges if you cannot guarantee all your students have a reliable computer, a decent broadband connection (lots of broadband plans in the UK still meter downloads), and a quiet space where they can participate.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries and cafes with free Wi-Fi would be open, and students could find a corner to watch (or take a nap) during recorded lectures. But that is no longer the case.
In the last two weeks, I have conducted my consultation hours online with students dialling into Zoom, but the results have been mixed – connections can be good, but sometimes, significantly patchy.
In other words, those without the right tools are disproportionately disadvantaged.
WIDENING SOCIAL INEQUALITIES
The digital divide is only one instance of how inequalities are now surfacing more strongly with current social policies around the world.
The introduction of social distancing and isolation has exposed and exacerbated many inequalities usually remain hidden in everyday life. These are often economic in nature (employed versus unemployed, stable job versus gig economy), but they are also social.
Such inequalities include gender – where caregiving duties and professions fall disproportionately on women, and those of a certain socioeconomic class – those with wider social networks and deeper resources are less impacted by changes to society and economy and sometimes even ethnicity, especially for minority and migrant communities.
An example of this is how the experience of home is not nearly the same for everyone. The word home often evokes a sense of safety and belonging, but sociologists and social workers know that is not a universal truth.
In recent weeks, commentators and scholars have clearly and powerfully articulated the dangers of isolation for victims of domestic abuse. This is not a unique problem for any one society - it is a global issue that affects millions of individuals.
NO EASY OR CHEAP ANSWERS
This is not to say that isolation and lockdowns are not necessary – they are a key part in protecting the physical health of the most vulnerable. But at the same time, it is crucial society recognises there are no easy (or cheap) answers when reducing individuals’ income and interaction.
Governments around the world are borrowing or drawing down reserves to mitigate the damage caused to businesses and employment.
In Singapore’s recently announced Resilience Budget, it was heartening to hear of increased measures to help self-employed and precarious workers. I was also pleased to see at least a little bit of Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s speech address social and psychological issues related to COVID-19.
But policies and politics are not enough to support the most socially vulnerable – i.e. those most affected by inequalities. While throwing more money at the situation won’t hurt, each of us also needs to ensure we prevent the “social deaths” of those around us.
Isolation and lockdown can affect many of us in a myriad number of ways. Sociologists have pointed out death can come in many ways, where physical death is only one such possibility.
A social death is one where individuals are cut off from the rest of society, sequestered away and ignored. In non-lockdown situations, the individuals who experience social deaths are often the elderly, the ill or the homeless.
One only needs to remember how “death houses” operated in Singapore’s Sago Lane to see how dying individuals were conveniently sealed off in their last days, put in rooms above coffin-making shops while their family waited downstairs for the inevitable.
PREVENTING 'SOCIAL DEATHS'
It sounds obvious doesn’t it? People get lonely, and we need to make sure they are not lonely. Indeed, many individuals and groups are doing excellent work in reaching out to those most in need during this crisis.
I think that more can be done on a micro-scale. For at least a brief moment of time, we need to exit our echo chambers on social media (yes, all of us) and ask ourselves this – in what practical ways can we physically isolate but prevent social isolation?
Different people will have different solutions. Technology, with all its problems, still affords many opportunities for reaching out. I don’t mean Virtual Reality or anything fancy – even a simple text, asking after someone, is often appreciated.
I learnt this having moved to the countryside. For the first time in my life, neighbours would actively knock on my door just to check up on me.
Maybe they saw me flailing around with the lawnmower and took pity, but it was here that I experienced an actual “kampung spirit”.
And that was how my fresh milk problem was solved. After mumbling about how I could not find a milk delivery service to one neighbour, who then told another neighbour, I discovered a bottle of milk sitting in my garden, no questions asked, no reward expected.
Terence Heng is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts.