Changing everyday mobilities in times of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic and people’s everyday mobilities are closely interrelated. The latter play a key role in the spread of the virus, while they shape the former in profound, diverse and uncertain ways. At this early time in the pandemic’s global evolution, it would be hubristic to make any authoritative claims about what impacts on everyday mobilities the virus is having or might have.

One observation is nonetheless that, on balance, people have rapidly heeded and adapted to the calls for social distances and (partial) lock-downs, even in advanced liberal democracies where state apparatuses are ill equipped for strict policing of implementation and compliance. Now, this relatively rapid and wholesale adjustment is no doubt in part a consequence of the perceived urgency of the threat of transmission of and infection by the virus, topped up in countries like the UK by a discourse promulgated by the state that staying at home can protect the healthcare system and ‘save lives’. Yet, as far as I tell from my specific social and geographical situation, the rapid adaptation also reflects that many of the processes of change in people’s everyday mobilities that we can currently witness were already ongoing and intensifying, at lest in the global North. I use the term intensification here in a specific way that is influenced by the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel Delanda, to suggest that previously ongoing processes are now actualising in different ways with the unfolding of the covid-19 pandemic. In other words, these processes take on new forms and shapes, and sometimes substantially so, rather than being new in and of themselves.

This is perhaps most evident for the rapid shift from physical and bodily to digital mobilities that can be witnessed in the sphere of paid employment. Of course this does not occur for everybody, as much work — especially but by no means exclusively carework — remains bodywork that requires physical co-presence. Also, most ‘key workers’ in domains such as healthcare, logistics and delivery services are still expected to turn up in person at their place(s) of employment. Yet, the shift to digitally enabled remote work from home is a radical intensification of the longstanding trend of increasing telecommuting. Hyped in the 1980s and 1990s by many transport researchers and numerous others, telecommuting took a long time to become institutionally embedded in many professional contexts. Recent research, for instance by Vilhelmson and Thulin whose focus is on Sweden, has indicated that the last decade has seen a substantial increase in the adoption of telecommuting.

What is changing under covid-19 is of course that one of the most significant ‘barriers’ to telecommuting — the need for face-to-face contact and meetings with colleagues, clients, students and so forth — is overcome by the forcefulness of state and employer mandated social distancing measures. Meetings that were until recently perceived to be poorly suited to a digital and remote format are now being conducted using specialised software, and digital ways of (re)establishing trust and rapport are invented and institutionalised along the way. This is, however, not a novel development but exceptionally fast scaling up of pre-existing trends, even if the specific forms and characteristics of those trends are changing as part of their rapid diffusion.

Might there be more novelty in the use of digital communication for social contact with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and others? After all, events such as ‘virtual coffees’, ‘virtual wine tastings’, virtual sport events and the streaming of cultural events that are seemingly premised on physical co-presence, such as plays or exhibitions, will not have been part of the repertoire of most households and individuals who may now be engaging in them. But that does not make them novel per se. They too can be seen as modifications and variations of things some people, among whom the younger generations were clearly over-represented, were already undertaking. The way people were increasingly maintaining contact with distant others and the increased consumption of streamed films (the netflixification of the cinema) have cultivated the competencies and habits that make virtual coffees and cultural events relatively easy to adopt for significant number of currently housebound people.

All of this is of course not to deny that there are no radically new developments in people’s everyday mobilities. It could, for instance, be argued that the most significant novelty is the ‘resocialisation’ of everyday mobility — the idea that remaining physically immobile by staying at home is a profoundly social act because it protects the national healthcare service and ‘saves lives’. The shifting meanings of mobility in relation to health and the ways these are being mobilised by state and citizens alike is a topic for a separate post. Suffice it to say for now, firstly, that the connotation of health with physical immobility is on a one level indeed a reversal of the habitual (and neoliberal) associating at the level of discourse of physical mobility with physical and mental health, an active social life and with having a purpose in life and a role a society. All of these are supposed to contribute to one’s wellbeing according to the positive psychology and active ageing movements (see here and here for further discussions).

At the same time, and secondly, those discursive associations are not as hegemonic as it would seem. They are also rather specific to the neoliberal era, having emerged and gained in force since 1970 or so, and originate in the North Atlantic Anglo-American world, from which they have travelled across the planet. Alternative discourses do exist. Consider, for instance, the starkly gendered discourses around everyday physical mobility for young people in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The work of Gina Porter and colleagues has shown how such mobility is often associated with sexual promiscuity for girls and young women in those geographical contexts. By implication, immobility, or at least tightly circumscribed and ‘responsible’ movement, is widely associated with virtuosity. Notice also that in Western Europe the recent rise of the no fly movement movement and the longer-standing interest in transition towns and the localisation of production and consumption have laid the groundwork for a revaluation of the virtues of immobility and tightly constrained mobility.

It is true that these examples of the cultivation of the virtue of immobility and heavily circumscribed mobility have no basis in medical discourse and praxis. But once the net is cast wider, then it is not too difficult to find historical examples from the medical realm. As Michel Foucault has argued in Discipline and Punish‘s chapter on panopticism, strict disciplinarisation of mobilities was an essential strategy in which authorities in medieval cities (in France, or at least Western Europe) sought to manage the plague. Understanding the strict disciplinarisation of people’s everyday mobility as socially and medically beneficial is not as new as it might seem.

Does it matter that the changes to the everyday mobilities of people in response to covid-19 are variations on pre-existing and past processes and tendencies rather than complete and radical novelties? I think it does, for the answer to that question has implications for what lessons that might be learnt for how we should deal with the environmental crises of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that have been caused at least in part by excessive fossil fuel consumption in everyday mobilities.

The covid-19 pandemic does not simply suggest that politicians and other decision-makers are able and willing to order radical and drastic changes, and police their compliance,if and when the threat is perceived to be urgent enough. It also indicates that people are able to adapt fairly quickly to large-scale, radical and drastic interventions in our carbon-intensive and polluting mobility systems when they can build on earlier experimentation with alternative everyday practices.

Perhaps the competencies, habits and understandings that people are currently accruing may constitute fertile ground for the much-needed post-pandemic interventions to enact deep and rapid cuts in the emissions and pollutants produced by our wholly unsustainable and deeply unjust systems for everyday mobility.