Pandemic Musings: Consent and Corona

By: Amy Sechrist

Reflecting on the pandemic response thus far, I’m struck by the shift in tone surrounding personal and community responsibility related to COVID-19. The initial lockdown and self-isolation periods felt more like a call to sacrifice for a larger public good. We were asked, even if we were healthy, to please stay home and avoid being the link in a transmission chain that could lead to another person’s death.

As we head into the fourth month of COVID-19 response, I’ve felt a shift in tone from collective duty to an “every person for themselves” approach.  Under this personal risk assessment framework, we as individuals are responsible solely for our own well-being; you can go get a haircut if you feel comfortable with the personal risk incurred regardless of your effect on public health.

To those who are immunocompromised or at a higher risk of contracting the virus, this approach says,  “Yeah, I know it’s inconvenient (maybe even impossible) to survive without going outside, but how I deal with the risks of the virus is my choice and how you deal with it is your choice. I will not be inconvenienced to accommodate your needs.”

Under this approach, the navigation of public space becomes a complex question of communicating, interpreting, and acting in response to the personal risk choices of others. It becomes a question of respecting stranger’s personal bodily autonomy and choice; in essence, it becomes a question of consent.

The times that I have felt personally the most anxious and/or annoyed in public space during the pandemic are those instances where my risk mitigation choices are clearly ignored. Walking with a friend one afternoon, we maintained a six-foot distance between us and transitioned from walking next to each other to walking single-file when crossing paths with others as a means of maintaining distance from strangers and each other.

When we crossed paths with another couple, both strangers witnessed our intricate dance to maintain social distance but made no effort to do the same. In the end, they entered the space we had clearly tried to safeguard. This felt not just annoying but invasive.

Of course, this type of invasion of space is not uncommon in public places. I’ve experienced countless instances of someone standing a little too close on the metro, choosing an adjacent seat when the rest of the bus is empty, or attempting to chat when I’m clearly reading a book and keeping to myself. None of these actions are necessarily malicious, but they exemplify the ways in which our culture has always struggled with issues of consent.

As the pandemic presses onward and people return to public spaces, I will be interested to see how these interactions occur and shape our feelings towards our communities and our neighbors. It is my sincere hope that we all become more practiced in the art of consent by paying attention to the signals of others and respecting their personal risk mitigation choices even if they differ from our own. Thankfully, there are many sex educators and gender-based violence advocates doing this work already. I hope to see the planning field consider the ways in which personal risk preference, public space, and consent interact to create more welcoming, although perhaps socially distanced, places in the future.

Featured Image: UNC’s Polk Place. Photo Credit: Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill

Amy Sechrist is a second-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning with a concentration in Housing and Community Development. Her research interests include affordable housing, planning for equity, and the intersection of gender and planning. Prior to UNC she worked as a Housing Advocate and Shelter Manager at a gender-based violence crisis center and as a federal project management consultant. Amy holds a certificate in Creative Placemaking from the New Hampshire Institute of Art and a bachelor’s degree in Political Communication from George Washington University.