Social Distance and Social Movements During COVID-19

April 20, 2020
Brian Wangenheim/Unsplash
David S. Meyer
Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science, University of California, Irvine

As a UCS Center for Science and Democracy Kendall Fellow, Fernando Tormos-Aponte is working to support scholars in their efforts to become politically engaged. As part of this work, Fernando is convening an interdisciplinary group of science advocacy and social movement scholars with the goal of promoting and learning more about activism within the scientific community. The working group seeks to develop a better understanding of science policy and advocacy through public outreach that directly engages science activists and disseminates new and existing research. As part of this work, working group members are publishing a series of blog posts that cover a range of issues related to science and advocacy. The blog series will draw from a variety of perspectives and use social science lens to spotlight and analyze existing science advocacy efforts, discuss equity issues, and share information about resources that scientists can use for their advocacy work. 

How does good medical advice affect meaningful collective action?

Before the recognition of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, we were living in a time of intense political mobilization–all over the world. But now, advisories to maintain social distance undermine the most visible elements of social movements: public meetings, canvassing, civil disobedience actions, lobbying trips, and, of course, demonstrations. It’s ridiculous to think that activists can stage a large demonstration in a public space while maintaining 6-10 feet distances from each other.

Globally, in a few places activists are marching together outdoors anyway, the cause so pressing that they are willing to take what they know of the risks: last week, thousands turned out in Kyiv to protest Ukraine’s concessions to Russia in talks to end the ongoing war; thousands of yellow vest protesters marched in Paris, in defiance of a government prohibition on large gatherings.

Urgency matters, of course, but these dramatic efforts can’t be sustainable. Even faster transmission of a viral infection is a risk for those taking to the streets, and–even more–it’s also a danger to the larger society that the protesters want to protect. Committed organizers won’t want to increase the risks their supporters take– nor risk diminishing turnouts.

The health threat, in conjunction with harsher government surveillance and repression have, at least for now, shut down the months-long protests in Hong Kong, and it’s hard to see how such mass movements will reemerge until everything feels a little safer.

In the meantime, what can organizers do to promote the issues they care about and build the citizen power they need to change the world?

Physical proximity has been almost a precondition for building collective action. More than 150 years ago, Marx and Engels wrote that capitalism, by bringing workers together in factories and cities, was handing shovels to its gravediggers. The piece that matters now is that they thought that once people were close to each other, sharing and comparing their troubles, finding common ground, and building trust–they could cooperate to make effective politics.

The idea that cohesive communities built on face-to-face contact can organize collective action, unlike other claims in the Communist Manifesto, has stood up pretty well. Workers who came to know each other on the factory floor built unions, organizers going door to door built neighborhood groups, and college students living in dorms organized and animated student movements. Activists of all sorts build community and make strategy over long meetings in kitchens and living rooms, pubs, and church basements. Good organizers listen to the people they wanted to engage and build human relationships, not just political transactions.

COVID-19 threatens every classic element of social movement organizing, from initial strategizing to visible political expressions.

The Internet and social media can offer some responses:  Tea Party organizers used Meet-Up to find each other and set up in-person meetings. Occupy Wall Street streamed actions and meetings to get the word out when mainstream media neglected it. A stray Facebook post in the wake of the Trump election inspired organizers to put together the Women’s March. Indivisible posted an online manual that reached millions of people across the country, who built their own groups and planned independent actions, sometimes in coordination (see distributed organizing, described by Dana Fisher’s book–at right).

But all of those efforts were all directed to produce events in real life with people knocking up against each other, friends and foes and bystanders. The Tea Party staged national demonstrations and coordinated disruptions and Congressional townhall meetings. Occupy occupied—everywhere, with thousands of people living in encampments. The Women’s March appeared in hundreds of sites, mobilizing millions, and Indivisible groups organized in real life meetings and events across the country.

Social media provides a tremendous aid to organizers working to get attention to their issues and activities, and coordinating actions, but they don’t work around the need to present action beyond a computer screen or keyboard. The real life part of activism is blocked right now.

Beyond that, COVID-19 commands so much of our attention, both political and personal, that it’s hard to find space for action on other political and economic issues. People are worried about getting to or staying away from work, buying food and toilet paper, attending to children and parents, navigating social distance with friends and family, and trying to plan for a future that’s hard to envision. Organizers concerned with climate change, reproductive rights, health care, or economic inequality can’t ignore. Instead, the challenge is to understand the daily struggles, maybe offer some help, and move to work for broader reforms.

The next question, in the shadow of the virus, is how.

This article was originally posted on Politics Outdoors. Read the second part of the article, “Solidarity and social distance.”