After much soldering up and preparations (three sheets of hand sanitizers in the right pocket and an additional two folded paper towels in left pocket with hand gel, masks on faces, and a set of plastic gloves in the breast pocket) my partner and I headed out grocery shopping. We navigated the maze of people on the street – some with masks, some actively practicing social distancing, many moving through the sidewalks carefree and caviler – as we and fellow social distance-ers strategically dodge through performances of ignorance and/or arrogance. At the grocery store (located in the basement of a prestigious building) the shoppers we encountered were for the most part more aware, doing their best at social distancing while maneuvering through narrow aisles.
At the cash register, the mask-less late twenties/early-thirties-something African Diaspora female cashier smiled gently as she informed us that she could not pack the bag we had brought with us (Somewhere in our minds we knew this but forgotten and brought our own) because of the virus; all the time she maintained her distance from us and we from her. We thanked her, smiled, and likely passed a joke between us as she packed our groceries in the store’s bags and carefully passed them to us. Suddenly, apparently out nowhere an equally mask- less co-worker, a white colleague, appeared within kissing distance of her face and less than four feet from our own, laughing in animated expressiveness; yet with no apparent reason for her presences. Our cashier looked quizzically. A bit jarred by the encounter, my partner and I, our masks still in place, thanked the cashier and hurried out. On our arrival home we followed the recommendation on bringing groceries into the home, sanitizing everything including ourselves.
In this time of the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic it is more crucial than ever that African Americans and African Diaspora people in western spaces design and codify strategies for health and wellbeing and staying alive. With lifelines above ground measured in six-feet distance, I have mapped six-feet into my acts of love and respect. It is with six-feet that I show love to friends and family members who have been a part of my life for more years than I can remember; and, it is with six-feet that I respect the lives of strangers whom I pass on the road while out on errands or my regular run. On paper it seems so simple, just stay six-feet away at all times; but in practice, this mandate is much more complicated. In recent weeks I have gained a profound understanding of the privilege of six-feet; it is a privilege many cannot access in any consistent and relevant way to positively impact health, well-being, and life. For those who are privileged enough to be able to regularly and consistently engage in rituals of six-feet distancing, we have learned that this six-feet ritual requires deliberate mindfulness and the ability to predict with relative accuracy the movement of others and respond accordingly. In the field of traffic safety, the ability to predict the movement of others, anticipate, and respond to risk in the environment is referred to as ‘hazard perception’ (see Frank Mckenna 2014), Hazard perception is beyond the concept of situational awareness – awareness of ones surroundings (a term used in the related field of human factor). Hazard perception is the ability to predict potential hazards. So important is this ability that in some western countries, such as the United Kingdom, one must pass a hazard perceptions test in order to qualify for a drivers license.
My Spring 2020 errands through the urban center where I reside and through the aisles of the grocery stores, test my ability to perceive and respond to potentially hazardous encounters – these are grueling tests that literally impact life and death. As coronavirus (COVID 19) takes away whatever illusions one might entertain of dignified death, missteps are not evident immediately but instead carry additional anxiety an up to fourteen days of wait – a crash in which the full impact unfold in a fourteen-day slow motion montage.
My journeys out of the apartment are well planned – an internal map of the streets likely to be less traveled, at times the grocery store will has less customers. This strategizing takes a great deal of psychic and emotional work – like most level-headed persons negotiating this unprecedented time, caution is essential. Still, using a technical term from human factors and traffic safety, crashes happen. A crash is an unplanned encounter with a moving object that results in impact.
The scenario that begins this essay is an example of a crash. My partner and I, and the African Diaspora cashier, understood that a particular way of being-in-the-world at this moment in time is necessary for health and well being, and survival. Metaphorically you could say we were, in that moment, in the same car. We chose to proactively engaged in following the guidelines set forth by the experts on how to be safe in a coronavirus (COVID 19) world, off how to be safe on the road. But, the cashier’s white colleague had other concerns/understandings of health and well-being in the age of coronavirus (COVID 19); or she may have had an alternate understandings of what constitute health and well-being. In my metaphor, this colleague could be said to be in another, more reckless, car. Pointless to speculate as to why someone would put themselves (and others) in harms in the age of coronavirus (COVID 19), though I am reminded that (especially of working-class and poor whites) the exercise of whiteness regularly involves much of what I term nonsensical behavior in high risk situations.
Driving metaphors have been useful to me in thinking about and thinking through my mobility in the world coronavirus (COVID 19). I view encounters such as the one described at the beginning of this piece as slow crashes. It will take fourteen days before we completely apprehend the severity of the encounter beyond the immediate (in-the-moment) psychological and emotional disturbance. Most drivers on the road are road allies, accepting and following the rules of the road so that each, with high degree of regularity, can travel to and from their destination without harms. Yet, not all drivers are road allies, and so too not all persons moving about the sidewalks, grocery stores, and running paths in my neighborhood are allies. Hazard perception is an essential skill for all in these times, especially for African Americans and African Diaspora peoples in western spaces.