Pigeonholes: our changing relationship to spaces in the age of COVID-19

Pigeonholes: our changing relationship to spaces in the age of COVID-19

Pigeonholes is a collaborative inter-sectional column from the Arts & Culture and Science sections, exploring issues across academic boundaries. This week in the Pigeonholes column: space, time, and COVID-19.

People find comfort in the familiar routines of everyday life. 

Just eight months ago, my routine included a morning coffee at Starbucks, German courses at St. Michael’s College, the bustling campus with crowds shuttling between the Galbraith Building and the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, and a cozy carrel at the Innis College Library. 

We all belong to numerous spaces, whether physical or virtual, social or personal. We all belong to the classes we attend, whether in person or online, to our workplaces, to our social groups and communities, to the cities or towns we live in, and to the spaces — however small — that we create for ourselves. 

Change, on the other hand, often brings discomfort by forcing us to step out of our comfort zones and adapt — and COVID-19 has been no exception. Such changes affect how we relate to the world around us and the spaces we find ourselves in.

Physical spaces and the ability to breathe 

Our spaces can be comforting or discomforting — or even both at the same time. Coming back to your room to rest after a long day is heartening, while being stuck in the same room for weeks might feel limiting and frustrating. 

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and things started shutting down in Toronto, people on Instagram and Facebook were chanting in unison, “Stay home, save lives,” insinuating a certain relationship with the spaces we occupy. 

This relationship brings a host of problems with it. For one, not everyone has a roof over their head, and not everyone who has one is safe underneath it. But for those who can, staying home as much as possible is one of the few simple things that can be done to stop the spread of COVID-19, which inevitably involves rethinking one’s attitude toward being at home more and learning to be okay with it.

In an essay on how COVID-19 has changed our relationship to life and death, Achille Mbembe wrote, “Caught in the stranglehold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold as the sense that our world is in a state of reprieve spreads far and wide.” 

COVID-19 seems to drag on, but the changes that the pandemic is bringing to our spaces will most likely be temporary. 

However, there is another crisis that threatens to literally destroy our shared space — our planet — through even more pandemics and natural disasters if we do not act fast. The climate crisis is an ongoing issue beyond COVID-19 that we need to be mindful of moving forward. This current crisis is therefore a valuable reminder for us to stop taking our lives and spaces for granted.

Social spaces and power

The spaces we occupy and how we relate to them are both functions of how much privilege and power we have. As a white, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, cisgender settler, I hold immense amounts of privilege, which is made especially clear through this pandemic and the grievences brought forth by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

For example, while physically-distanced, outdoor physical activity is allowed during the shutdown in Ontario, I feel bad for going on my daily solo walks, though I’m obviously masked and staying two metres away from the scarce passerby. 

I can’t stop myself from going out because I feel like I needed more space to move around and more air to breathe, which is a selfish attitude because even breathing is a privilege in the time of COVID-19. Being able to walk in the city without fearing for your life is a privilege. And I was, and still am, lucky and privileged enough to be able to take up more space than my room. 

For most of us, COVID-19 restrictions will eventually be over, but many chronically ill or immunocompromised people will remain homebound

Meanwhile, some domestic violence survivors are locked in with their abusers with nowhere to go during lockdown. Some LGBTQ+ folks are stuck in places where they can’t be themselves, and many racialized people are encountering even more systemic and overt racism during COVID-19. The pandemic also brings extra distress to people going through homelessness and people who are disabled and experience difficulties accessing vital services.

The viral unequalizer in virtual spaces

Among other challenges, the pandemic has also made it necessary for us students to manage the spaces where we learn. A New York Times article contends that universities are incredible equalizers — under normal circumstances. 

When we take our classes in the same lecture halls, hit the books in the same silent libraries, use the same reliable campus wi-fi, and write our midterms and exams in the same giant impersonal rooms, most of the socioeconomic disparities between us are barely noticeable. 

Now, however, most of the spaces that are vital to our learning are off-limits, leaving students to take classes from their homes. You need a quiet space to concentrate on your lectures, but what if you share a tiny apartment with a teething baby, your wi-fi keeps cutting off, or you can’t afford wi-fi altogether so you rely on a faint signal from a nearby Tim Hortons? Your teaching assistant wants you to keep your camera on, but what if you don’t want others to see where you are? 

U of T students in Toronto can come and study on campus, even if their courses are online, which further isolates those studying from inaccessible spaces elsewhere. The pandemic creates yet another spatial divide that has not been present before.

Creating space for discomfort

We all have varying thresholds of discomfort, especially regarding social spaces, and we all set boundaries to protect ourselves, which is a vital skill. Yet sometimes, accepting the discomfort and learning to live with it is necessary for growth and learning, and sometimes, it is necessary for survival. So how do we decide when we shield ourselves from discomfort and when we sit through it to grow, like during a particularly painful stretching exercise? 

Of course, with some types of discomfort, setting appropriate boundaries and disengaging are what help us grow. But some discomfort cannot be avoided. There are some uncomfortable truths and dilemmas we have to face with regard to COVID-19. 

Yes, lockdowns aren’t fun and limit certain freedoms and privileges we’re used to, but they are necessary to protect others. The pandemic also raised many ethical questions to which there are no easy answers: questions of potentially triaging ventilators, our duties to others, resource allocation, and the intensifying digital divide.

We need to make space for that discomfort, be it by reflecting on how our actions contribute to the status quo or by acknowledging the devastating impact of the pandemic. First, let the discomfort sink in. Breathe through it. Take your time. 

No one can single-handedly solve world hunger, create a COVID-19 vaccine, or stop the climate crisis, but we can all make a difference in our spaces. We can make our classrooms safe and accessible through advocacy and tackling difficult questions. And we can create spaces that bring comfort to ourselves and to others.

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