“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am really scared of COVID-19. I’ve always had a thing about germs, but the current situation is taking my fears to the next level. I’m a freelance graphic designer and an introvert, so working from home is okay for me and being alone most of the time is actually just fine. But so many of my queer friends seem to be going out and not practicing physical distancing!! Like WTF? Worst of all, I have two queer roommates who literally go outside every day to “walk for exercise,” but I bet they’re really hanging out with people. One of them even went on a Tinder date!(!!!)
How is this okay? They are endangering themselves, and me and everyone around them. I know some people have to go to work, but honestly, I think my roommates are just selfish and entitled. Why are people like this? To be honest, I have even considered calling the police—which I know is a huge taboo in our community—but this is LITERALLY life or death!! They are both super extroverted, confident and outgoing, so as an introvert who is super shy, it’s really hard for me to assert my needs around them. Honestly, this feels like abuse—what do you think? What can I do? Please help!
Petrified in the Pandemic
I hear what you’re saying about being scared of COVID-19. We are currently living through a terrifying moment in history, and fear is in many ways an adaptive response: Fear keeps us alert, it keeps us cautious, it motivates us to engage our survival skills. Fear can be healthy, and in a time when health is of the utmost importance, it is right to be afraid of the virus. If your fear is helping you stick to physical distancing and other preventive measures that will help keep you and others safe, then let us be thankful for your fear. Thank you for your will to survive, because this world needs you in it.
But fear can also be debilitating and painful, particularly when we feel trapped or helpless over an extended period. The pandemic has trapped all of us in a situation over which we have little control: Not over the spread of the virus (though physical distancing will certainly help), nor its economic effects and least of all over the behaviour of others. And it is in these moments, when our fear seemingly has no place to go, that it threatens to overwhelm us.
Let us begin by giving your fears of others not physically distancing somewhere to go, Petrified, by reminding you that you are not alone in what you’re feeling. The night before I started writing the response to this question, I literally had a nightmare about walking along the shore of Lake Ontario, only to find it teeming with people. And a few days ago, while out on an essential grocery store run, a man walking much too close behind me coughed (accidentally, I assume) just a few inches away from my head— I reflexively turned on him with a wordless animalistic snarl straight out of a horror movie that sent him scrambling backward while babbling apologies.
I think it’s fair to say we’re all just a little bit tense.
Yet, dear Petrified, I also believe that it is human compassion and courage that will get us through this crisis, not authoritarian governance or increased policing. As queer scholar-activist Alexander McClelland wrote in a recent NOW op-ed, the legal precedent of criminalizing HIV transmission shows us that we can’t police our way out of a pandemic. McClelland writes:
“We might think COVID-19 impacts everyone equally. But laws designed to punish people in the pandemic will not be applied equally. Police will target marginalized communities. Just look to the numerous police killings of people of colour, homeless people and people with mental health issues.”
So while I certainly understand—and to some extent sympathize—with feeling like there is no other option than to call the police on your roommates, Petrified, I want to gently remind us all that history’s track record shows that police have not increased the safety of queer community. In fact, the opposite has tended to be true.
On a practical level, let’s imagine that you are taken seriously by the police (which is not guaranteed): In order to enforce physical distancing, they will likely have to come to your home, thus breaking that rule and exposing you and your roommates to strangers. If they issue your roommates warning or fines, you will be left in an indefinite quarantine situation with two people who will likely be very upset with you. And let us recall that, if your roommates are taken into custody, they will be put into a facility like a jail, prison or detention centre—all of which are highly susceptible to outbreaks and have the potential to become hotbeds for contagion.
None of this sounds to me like it will make you safer or reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the community.
However, I do firmly believe that you have the right to assert and hold your boundaries around physical distancing because you are absolutely right that the behaviour of a few affects us all. That your roommate went on a Tinder date sounds particularly concerning to me. You deserve safety and respect, Petrified. And you certainly don’t deserve to be endangered by irresponsible or frivolous behaviour.
That said, I don’t think I know enough about this situation to weigh in on whether it constitutes abuse (which I personally define as the misuse of power over another person). What I do know is that it sounds like you need some support to communicate with your roommates. I wonder if there are folks in your life that you can reach out to for back up? Even if they are not close friends, there are many queer folks out there right now with a strong interest in helping people stick to physical distancing norms.
Once you have people to talk about this with, I might suggest that you create a group plan to open the discussion with your roommates: Perhaps calling a house meeting is a good strategy—your support folks can Zoom, Skype or otherwise call in if you have access to that technology. You might also want to set up check-in meetings before and after talking to your roommates—whatever you need to feel more confident, safe and resourced going into this conversation.
I would also suggest opening with genuine curiosity, with a question you’ve already asked in your letter: Why aren’t your roommates sticking to physical distancing?
This is not to justify or excuse this behaviour but, as conflict resolution experts point out, starting from a place of empathy and productive dialogue is the most likely route to effecting change in other people’s opinions and behaviour. Approaches based on shaming and hostility are, from a psychological perspective, not as likely to work because this approach provokes anxiety, and a common coping mechanism for anxiety is denial which, in this case, means continuing to not take COVID-19 transmission seriously.
Let’s also leave room for the possibility that some folks in the queer community are going outside for reasons that are justified (which do not include Tinder dates!). There are, of course, frontline workers in essential services, but there are also folks who are organizing community food drop-offs, people seeking medical care and other necessary outings.
It’s worth noting as well that as of April 1, low-risk individuals are still being encouraged by public health authorities to go out for exercise as long as they maintain appropriate physical distance—though I understand that this may change, and not everyone (neither experts nor laypeople) feels the same way about it. For many people, physical movement and access to the outdoors is essential to their mental health, which is likely why governments have been reluctant to ban it outright (though it may sadly become necessary depending on the course the pandemic takes). For some, prolonged confinement in a small space can provoke serious mental health issues, including depression and suicidality.
Remember, too, that healthy anger and healthy shame may play a role in this conversation—one that is being echoed in households all over the world right now. If your roommates are engaging in unjustifiable risky outings and are simply not willing to hear you or reflect on the impact of their behaviour, then you have the right to be angry, Petrified.
If this is the case, your support folks may need to take a more active role in helping you hold your boundaries and protect your health. This could involve (virtually) bringing in more people from the community to help convince your roommates, or contacting mutual friends who believe in the importance of physical distancing. Peer group influence is a powerful factor in promoting behavioural change; this is where healthy shame can play a role in helping your roommates remember their responsibility to you and the community. And even if this fails to increase your safety, you will have created a support network that can continue to help you look for creative options, such as finding you a safer place to live.
All this to say, we are bound together in a tight, complex web of needs, dangers and fears, Petrified. And the only way to get through as a community is to try to keep our hearts open, compassionate and committed to finding the best solutions available. If you and your roommates are able to communicate authentically and compassionately with one another, I suspect that you may be able to work out a solution.
In a time of such terrible crisis, it makes sense to be afraid, Petrified, and to be angry or frustrated. These feelings are helping us learn how to save our lives. Yet a crisis also calls upon us to find our courage, our empathy, our vulnerability and our kindness—these, too, are essential life-saving tools because they allow us to save each other. It is hard to do the work of caring—to choose to love each other courageously—in the midst of great trouble. But then again, this is something that queer community knows how to do. I believe we can. I believe we must.