Of COVID-19 and Solidarity: Social Distancing and Privilege

Deaconness Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana of the Philippines reflects on how social distancing, while a public health necessity, also magnifies existing social inequities.

When the woman who is bleeding for twelve years (Lk. 8:43-48) tries to sneak into the crowd just to touch the hem of Jesus’s clothe, what could she possibly have been feeling?

When she defies social distancing just so she can get near to the only possible source of her healing, what might be going on in her mind? When she squeezes herself into the middle of the crowd, just so she can see this one whom many have testified have healed them, where does her hope spring up from, that she could be actually be healed?

Remember that in her time, people like her practiced social distancing (and more) because they were considered unclean. Social distancing was the norm for sick, the poor and economically marginalized by society.

The novel COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented fear and immobility for millions of people in this world. If unattended, the disease can lead to death. The virus has affected so many people in different ways.

For one, it affects how we relate to one another. In many communities, families and friends, the usual way of greetings through handshake, hug, a kiss or tap on the shoulders have been replaced with just a nod or a smile. We have to maintain distance.

Our tightly knit community, where telling stories and keeping up with each other in groups is the norm, are all halted to avoid spreading the virus. Even worship services out of necessity are virtual, so that we make sure that we don’t get infected or infect other if we carry the virus. Visitation among church members, also has to stop.

The response of the government in the Philippines is even more severe. It is a lock-down. From enforced policies of Community Quarantine to Enhanced Community Quarantine enforced by the military, what is clear is that everyone must practice social distancing, nobody leaves their home, work is suspended except for health personnel, a skeletal force in government and private offices in kept, and people in BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) call centers stay on the job. Different means of public transportation have to be suspended. Everyone is encouraged to work from home.

Social Distancing, work from home?

Yes, for the economically and socially privileged few. But hunger, pain and death for the majority of the people who are poor.

This virus intensifies the already obscene gap between the rich and the poor so much so that many curse and direct their anger toward the poor; they blamd the poor for their “stubbornness” not to heed the government’s call to stay at home and practice social distancing. Social media is flooded with posts from the privileged few who can’t help but just stay privileged.

I am offended every time I see and hear people direct their anger toward the poor because they leave their homes so they can go to work. They are daily wage earners. They have mouths to feed. Children rely on them for their sustenance. Parents depend on them for their medication to maintain health. They need to go to work every day or else they won’t get paid by their employers. They don’t have benefits. All they have is their day’s salary which is not even enough to survive.

I am not against social distancing. Social distancing has its scientific basis (…/coronavirus-social-distancing.html). We need to practice social distancing.

But I hope we understand that social distancing only works when people have food, access to medical services and medical information, basic necessities and much needed social services and assurance of their security and physical protection.

The call for social distancing has to be carried out with rational planning, compassionate urging and care.

My heart is broken as I watch the news and see an 80-year-old woman who has to walk from the market to her home carrying all her goods because public transportation has been suspended with no thought to her needs.

My heart is broken when I see a woman who has to pay double or triple her usual fare just so she can get home because the lock-down was announced at midnight and made effective immediately.

My heart is broken when I hear of a 69-year-old street sweeper who is arrested without warrant or due process and a case is filed by the police. Why? Because she became angry at the barangay officials who woke her from her sleep in the early hours of the morning and was asked to go home, without knowing if indeed she really has a home to return to. Why would a 69-year-old woman sleep on the street if she had a home to stay in?

Truth to tell, I am privileged to work from home, eat anytime I like and free to walk outside and destress from my frustration with the government’s incapacity to handle this situation and assure the people of their support and provision during the lock-down. Yes, I can just keep quiet and say that I am not affected. Truthfully and sadly, that is not the case for many who are victimized because they are poor. And so, I choose not to be quiet.

I am a deaconess of The United Methodist Church, and part of my sacred calling is to fulfill my task to alleviate suffering, and eradicate all that robs life of human dignity, as our Book of Discipline says. I may not be able to fulfill that calling fully, but I can do something to help and at least be a voice that can help speak out for those whose voices have been drowned by our apathy, self-centeredness, individualism and yes, a government that is inept, irresponsible and lacks moral ascendancy. While I may be limited on what I can do as an individual, I take heart that solidarity in this most crucial time of our people’s lives is important and necessary.

Return to the story of the bleeding woman. She pushed social distancing to its limits because that was the only thing that would attract Jesus’ attention and enable him to respond to her dire situation. Jesus did not condemn the woman for her audacity. Jesus’ response is compassion and healing. Jesus sees the woman’s need. She embodies society’s ill and how her society has pushed her to its margins, rendering her invisible, voiceless and inhuman. Jesus feels what the woman needs. Jesus’ response is to affirm her wholeness. The woman feels acceptance, redemption, and wholeness.

Isn’t this what our people are also looking for?