Graphic Medicine International Collective board member Dana Walrath has shared several comics she created in the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown. As you may know, Dana is an artist, writer, and medical anthropologist. She is best known among the graphic medicine community as the creator of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass.
On her website, Dana writes about these works,
Activists across the globe have made visible the layers of privilege inherent in the call for “social distancing” to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic globally. Displaced people in crowded camps, incarcerated people, people without large disposable incomes do not have the option to make a bubble of physical space to keep themselves out of harm’s way. Given that physical, not social, distance slows the spread of a contagious disease, why then, is the term “social distancing” so sticky? Perhaps because social distancing captures deeply felt unspoken beliefs that threaten our collective health.
For over a century, linguists have known that language not only reflects, but it creates our world view. Today, neural scientists know that thought patterns, in turn, correspond to physiological signals and connections between neurons deep inside our brains. Calling it “social distancing” instead of “physical distancing” subconsciously innervates an act of othering, separating us from each other in ways that will help the virus spread.
The wholesale acceptance of the misnomer term of “social distancing” by health officials happened in a world organized and stratified according to human-made, sometimes hate-filled, boundaries. The deep othering was not immediately recognized because it was already subconsciously encoded in our neural pathways. In this time of polarization—of “us” and “them”—such othering has grave consequences. It creates an illusion of our separate fates. It lets us forget that poverty is a profound social determinant of health including our susceptibility to this virus.
Scientists making sense of the epidemiology of COVID-19, necessarily make broad statements about age, geography, borders, time, virulence, and outcomes. They do so because a global health care system rooted in equity does not exist. A just global health system would close the social distance between any “us” and “them” and contribute to containing the virus for all of us.
In this time of polarization and shortages, it is tempting to start using any number of our social divisions, by age, geography, beliefs, class, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and more to protect our individual selves, our city, our county, our state, our country. The Corona Virus has shown us that it can cross any human made divisions. Let us follow suit and transcend social boundaries, even those divisions that appear to be natural, and in doing so take physical care of one another. Our intertwined fates depend upon collective action.
In a contagious pandemic, common sense tells us maintain physical distance. At the same time, we can recognize the inherent privilege of this act and use every social means available to stay connected to our shared humanity and our shared planet. In doing so, we lead one another to health.