Pandemic lockdown policies focusing on traditional families and households can result in single people effectively living in solitary confinement, writes Dr Zoë Sofoulis of Western Sydney University.
Adopting a ‘co-virality’ model, she says, may slightly increase viral risk but offers a major gain for mental health.
Zoë Sofoulis writes:
For the family/household, ‘isolation’ means being cooped up together; for singles it is closer to solitary confinement.
We need an approach to pandemic lockdowns that recognises the important social connections of single people, rather than punishing them for housing and lifestyle choices by consigning even the uninfected to near total isolation.
We urgently need a demographic ‘lockdown unit’ adapted to the social and epidemiological realities of 21st Century Australia—one based on current knowledge, not anachronistic family ideologies or muddle-headed confusions between kinship structures and housing arrangements.
In some times and places, the village was the lockdown unit. At present it is the family/household. I propose this be updated to the co-viral group or ‘cove’ for short, invoking both strands of meaning of ‘cove’ as a sheltering niche, and as a fellow.
When a viewer of the ABC’s Q&A asked about emotionally damaging social isolation and lack of physical contact for people who live alone, former National Party Leader John Anderson replied that the lockdown had revealed two types of people: those who could, and those who could not, cope.
Mental fragility is here seen as the cause of malaise rather than the effect of an ill-fitting epidemiological policy.
It is more accurate to say that lockdown laws have radically restricted and redistributed intimacy to create two types of people.
First are those in the 71% of Australian households comprising families with children or cohabiting couples, for whom relations of proximity and intimacy are intensified, perhaps to a diabolical degree.
Second are the 24% of households (more than 2 million) with sole residents (our biggest growing household type) for whom almost all social or physical intimacy was criminalised, with predictable mental health effects.
A key problem here is confusion between categories of family and household, perpetuated for decades by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which defines the family as persons “who are usually resident in the same household”, despite “a great deal of evidence that Australians in general do not define their families in this way” and “often regard their families as extending across households.”
This slipshod equation between household and family allows people who live in single person households to be classified as having no family, and therefore no social connections worth considering in policy – including for pandemics.
People who live, work or play together tend to have overlapping microbiomes: they are co-viral (as well as co-fungal and co-bacterial, etc). The idea of a household-based lockdown is to avoid sharing microbiomes with people outside the household/family unit, and to contain pathogens within it.
Co-virality is based on intimacy but that does not necessarily mean kinship or co-habitation. The family household would not be taken as the universal norm, but just one kind of co-viral group.
At the start of an epidemic or pandemic lockdown, people who lived alone or outside conventional families could nominate a handful of people – the exact number to be determined through epidemiological modelling – who would be their ‘co-virals’, ‘coves’ or ‘covies’ for the duration.
What’s a ‘co-viral’ group?
A co-viral group might consist of non-cohabiting relatives (kin) and/or friends and neighbours (kith). If the ‘cove’ were considered the equivalent of a family or household, this would permit kith groups to shop, exercise, hug, eat or sit out a fortnight’s quarantine together just as co-habiting kin groups or housemates currently do, without risking heavy fines.
Each member of the co-viral group would inform the others if they tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or became ill with COVID-19 symptoms. There would no doubt be apps for it.
A co-viral group might even be formed around membership of a work group, like a film production crew, or perhaps a sports team.
Co-viral groups could slightly increase viral risk but offer a major gain in mental health, especially for younger singles and for women, who typically support family members but rely on friends for their own emotional sustenance. The recent finding that women are emotionally suffering more than men under lockdown may reflect deprivation of sustaining friendships (not to mention higher job losses).
Research collaborations between social and cultural researchers, public health experts and epidemiologists are needed to identify appropriate social units for lockdowns, to formulate policies that are less punitive to single, unmarried, LGBTQI, child-free and older (especially female) people, and to trial outcomes for coves versus household groups in the next lockdown.
Australians deserve epidemiological policies based on contemporary social and technological realities, not outdated myths.
Allowing enjoyment of social intimacy with nominated ‘coves’ could be the basis of a more compassionate, evidence-based and sustainable approach to the isolation of single- person households in pandemics.
Dr Zoë Sofoulis is a cultural analyst known for practical applications of qualitative cultural research and humanities perspectives in fields where technology and engineering predominate, especially urban water. Her work has helped define a cultural and sociotechnical perspective on metropolitan water and demand management. She is an Adjunct Researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.
Acknowledgement to Meredith Jones for help with editing.