Kandida Purnell By: Kandida Purnell
Assistant Professor of International Relations
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11 Nov 2020 : Losing count, losing touch: on feeling/not feeling the 2nd wave

It is November and in Europe the 2nd wave is upon us, but not all of us. In fact, today it is predicted that where I live in the UK the official COVID-19 death toll will surpass 50,000 and yet I still (thankfully/*touches wood*) know no-one who has died 'with COVID-19'. Do you? Over the course of this year I have come to realise that my experience of the COVID-19 has so far been one of immense privilege and of a body let go - from cramped and claustrophobic commutes and uncomfortable shoes amongst other things - let go from certain pressures I felt before.

After the peak of the UK's first wave, in July, I wrote in this diary about the numbers and numbness produced by COVID body counting - that I was "finding numbers far too slippery, too intangible... yearning for something more solid throughout this pandemic" and since then I have not stopped thinking about the connection between numbers and my numbness. Maybe some of us feel out of touch with the pandemic because we are?

The more I think about it the more I realise that there are profound affective-social-political consequences of bodies losing touch during the pandemic. The dying cut off in 'COVID wards' and those left behind in turn denied the touch of comfort as funerals have been banned or limited and social distancing measures applied to everybody including those in mourning. How then to grieve the COVID-19 dead? Especially when (as Casey Cep commented in the New York Times in May) "there has been no national moment of silence or day of mourning no collective call to pause & grieve together." Rather than public rituals and gatherings - the bereaved dressed in black and overspilling from the pub and on to the street during the drinks after - news and mourning of the dead is circulated and contained within social networks where it echoes around the online chambers inhabited by those particular communities paying the highest price. Indeed, such a containment of grief, while distressing for those directly impacted, has knock on affects or more precisely has no knock on affect and instead works to shield others from the sight, feeling, and indeed the very touch of death. Looking at the way COVID-19 has disproportianately worked its way around our social body, I'm of the opinion that such affective containment has further implications - of sharpening the emotional landscape of pandemic and in doing so setting communities further apart from another, enabling some bodies to keep going, remain unaffected, and to continue circulating while others feel the toll of the pandemic in private.

I often turn to Sara Ahmed and find almost always that something in her work will be important and relevant. This time, re-reading 'The Cultural Politics of Emotion' reminds me that "emotions work to shape the surfaces of individual and collective bodies" (2004: 6) and that there is reason behind our colloquialisms - that we describe ourselves as having been emotionally touched, or as finding somebody’s speech touching. After all, being touched - emotionally - makes bodies materially different as being affected involves "physically and biologically something is present [in the body] that was not there before’ (Brennan, 2004: 1). As I understand them, bodies and emotions are mutually constitutive and therefore play an important role in (re/dis)embodiment and beyond this in the social-political (re)orientation  - the very movement - of individuals and collectives meaning there will be profound affective-social-political consequences of bodies losing touch during this pandemic. From a lack of feelings allowing and facillitating the continued circulation of somebodies to the containment of grief in parts of the social body further deepening emotional-political divides in our country when we most need to unite in the face of Government ineptitude - the stakes are high. However, as I conclude this diary entry I am warned on Twitter by UK COVID-19 data analyst Lawrence Gilder that "today’s deaths figure is likely to be very unsettling. I am projecting deaths to be around 550-620, hopefully I am completely wrong, but whatever the real figure is, do not become numb to it. These are all lives tragically lost." And yet, being out of touch as I am, I feel nothing.

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