Our Pandemic Society: Distance is necessary, but it’s also a true burden

Highly personal reflections on life during the coronavirus from photographer Brian Plonka and columnist Shawn Vestal.

It starts with the standard 6 feet and grows to include distances impossible to measure.

The time between now and the last time you saw this friend or that cousin. The uncanny emptiness where a hug or a handshake used to live. The unfathomable distance between the mysterious now and the unforeseeable end of this.

New gulfs are everywhere. There are social distances between families who can manage the home-schooling routine, however frustrating it is, and the families who are falling off the educational grid, whose children are likely to face deficits we cannot predict.

There are social distances between those who have kept their jobs – and those scouring the listings daily, looking for a way to keep the wolf from the door.

There are the distances between those who have had the disease – 10.7 million across the nation, 12,000 in Spokane County – and those who have not. Between those of us who have lost loved ones and those who have not. Between those who have died and those who live.

Between those who believe, strange as it is to put it that way, in the reality of the disease and how to control it, and those who do not.

The distances – vast and worsening – between those of us who can stay safe by staying home, and those who have no home to stay safe in.

• • •

Flag display along Highway 43 in North Idaho / Early heatwave inside Spokane metro corridor.  (BRIAN PLONKA/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Something there is, to misquote Frost, that does not love so much distance.

It’s necessary right now, of course. It’s vital. But it’s also unnatural. It presses back against all our impulses, against our nature as human beings. We evolved to be cooperative, to be together, to share burdens, to solve problems collectively, to celebrate and the mourn in community.

We evolved to touch each other. The very skin that covers us is made to be touched, to transmit calm and contentment through sensory contact with others.

The virus interrupts those patterns.

Even when we get together, we stay apart. When it was warm out, neighbors caught up by standing in their own driveways and hollering back and forth. Friends gathered in back yards, wondered if there was enough distance between the chairs. Communities celebrated weddings and graduations with drive-by ceremonies, with honking and waves and distant woohoos.

Something there is that doesn’t love all this distance. That pushes us to close it up. It’s why it’s so hard to do what’s wise and safe, and why so many of us do not.

That is one of the pandemic’s brutal ironies: The more we try to close those social distances now, the longer this will last.

• • •

Trump and the Virgin Mary along the Rathdrum Prairie in North Idaho / Spent campfire with elk bones somewhere deep near Priest Lake in North Idaho.  (BRIAN PLONKA/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

We see the evidence of our social distances on the streets of downtown Spokane. On Monroe, under the freeway. Under the rail line, and in the alleys. On the faces of those pushing carts on Second and Third avenues, huddling under tarps until the city crews come to move them out.

In a city where so much communal activity has halted or been limited, what you see downtown is a stark representation of a longstanding distance. It’s one our city has argued about, grappled with, tried to address, tried to ignore, and failed, ultimately, still, to solve – right there, more visible than usual, as if fixed under a bright light.

The coronavirus presents particular threats and challenges to those people – and for those who strive to feed and care for them. The city has scrambled to keep them housed and has taken some steps to improve the overall shelter network, but we still fall far short of filling the need. It’s not at all clear that the region’s leaders truly want to.

For many of those living on the streets, pressed by the hunger of the day, the virus is too abstract, too invisible to be a major concern.

In my conversations with homeless people over the past year, I have found a widespread disregard for the virus. Many of them just don’t take it very seriously. Many don’t believe it at all. All are living an immediate, present-moment crisis in which the threat of an invisible virus in the air doesn’t make it onto their list of problems.

The distance between their lives and the lucky rest of us – huge, unfathomable, deepening.

• • •

Rush hour at the intersection of I-90 and Broadway in Spokane Valley / Rush hour along the north backstretch along Hauser Lake in North Idaho.  (BRIAN PLONKA/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Here’s a story about another kind of social distance: One summer Sunday in the middle of the pandemic, I walked into a bar at Stateline, Idaho, to use the bathroom.

My wife, son and I had taken our bikes to Coeur d’Alene, desperate to put distance between us and the confines of our home, where we spend so much time stepping all over each other this year.

We had ridden along the lake and stopped to have dinner at a restaurant with a patio afterward. The whole way, everywhere we went, you could see the differences – the distances – between the visible adherence to health precautions in Spokane and the absence of such adherence in North Idaho.

That had been the normal experience of that day – and the normal experience of every other day I have spent in Idaho, my native state, where I have been several times this year, on day trips to North Idaho and to see family in southern Idaho.

The bar was attached to a gas station and restaurant. When I went in, the sharp, unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke greeted me like a slap. I was wearing a mask. None of the few others there were. One man sitting at the bar joked: Uh-oh! You here to rob us?

I had forgotten what it was like to be in a room where people were smoking. It was both nostalgic – for I grew up in an era when people smoked everywhere and spent much more than my share of time in smoky bars over the years – and almost unrecognizable, so rare is it these days.

In my mask, in the smoke, I felt completely strange. Alienated. A visitor to another society, another culture, another planet.

The virus was not yet out of control in Idaho. It is now. And yet the public health response there – and in many other rural communities and states where politics has fueled disregard, dismissal and disbelief about the virus – remains as it was, weak and half-hearted, a world of difference separating them from places only a few miles away.

• • •

Wandering cattle dog along the Left Fork Road in North Idaho / A night-light inside a single wide trailer in North Idaho.  (BRIAN PLONKA/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some of these social distances will close.

We will meet and celebrate together again.

We will sit beside each other in theaters and at games.

Many of us will recover from the hardships of this time with relative ease.

Many of us, living in the great good fortune of our abundant lives, will absorb these blows and recover.

And many will not. Those who study the economy and poverty foresee a deepening of distances between us. Renters and landlords are locked in a dire interplay – eviction moratoriums provide some protection, but there is desperation on both sides that has been left largely untouched by relief efforts.

At some point, we may see an eviction wave of millions – a wave that could well make itself known on our streets.

The number of Americans living in poverty has risen by 8 million since May, according to Columbia University researchers.

Many of those people had a lifeline early in the pandemic from the CARES Act – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – but that help is gone.

Around 100,000 businesses have closed for good during the pandemic, according to Yelp’s Economic Impact Report, which tracks closures through its customer-review app.

The virus itself has hit hardest in communities of color and impoverished neighborhoods. Low-wage workers – many of whom work in jobs that do not pay enough to take care of their basic needs – suffered the bulk of the job cuts. About 40% of job losses have come in positions earning less than $40,000 a year, according to the Federal Reserve.

Worldwide, the some 100 million people in less-developed countries are expected to fall into extreme poverty, according to estimates by World Bank.

The economic hurt rains downward, ever downward.

Some of these social distances, however, won’t simply close on their own. They existed before and will continue exist – even larger and more stubbornly fixed – if all we do is wait for them to close.

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