The fact we're talking about this in public highlights a big difference from the last major pandemic, the influenza virus that emerged in 1918 and killed millions as it circled the globe. Back then, health authorities weren't issuing explicit instructions, advice and warnings about who can safely have sex and who shouldn't.
Extract from “No sex please, we’re in a pandemic” – USA Today
IN THE 1950s there was another outbreak of polio (acute poliomyelitis or APM) in TT. My grandmother, without waiting for official instructions, kept her children at home, away from school or interaction with anyone other than herself. As it turns out, her protective instinct ensured that her children stayed safe, evading “flaccid paralysis of the limbs” or even death.
Today, my grandmother’s instinct has been refined into rules for disease avoidance called social or physical distancing. Staying apart has not only helped keep us safe, but has led to the creation of strange new practices like elbow bumps and the unusual sight of Trinis standing in line.
Still, beyond the masks and hand-sanitising, are we really staying away from each other? This week the Ministry of Health signalled that it “will be on the lookout for an increase in the number of babies being born toward the beginning of 2021, which might be as a result of the covid19 lockdown.” Reports from other areas of the world also indicate a wait-and-see approach concerning a possible baby boom.
Given the complex nature of intimacy during a pandemic, some countries report little to no change in relationships, while, conversely, others have experienced dramatic negative impacts. Thus, as personal relationships are possibly being radically altered by a disease, should official guidelines on the coronavirus also include sex and intimacy?
Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about the possible increase in domestic violence due to extended lockdowns. Sadly, reports in TT have proved WHO correct. In the US, solid relationships do not seem to have been widely affected by being forced to spend more time together. Alternatively, in China “the pandemic has left some cracks in family relationships” as demonstrated by an increase in divorce rates.
However, it is in the world of dating where the rules have significantly altered, again. HIV/AIDS was perhaps the last virus to cause a tectonic shift in sexual awareness and behaviour, emphasising protected sex and other guidelines such as monogamy and avoiding risky behaviour. Although at this time there is no data to suggest sexual transmission of covid19, there is a link between fighting the disease and our appreciation of intimacy.
The coronavirus is spread through actions such as coughing, sneezing and saliva, so even casual expressions of affection are not recommended. As one site puts it: “...singles accustomed to an active romantic life – dating, hooking up, having sex with whomever they want, whenever they want? Don't do that anymore, at least for the time being. That means no holding hands, no snuggling under the covers and definitely no kissing someone you just met.”
Isolation, unemployment, unpredictability of becoming ill and the uncertainty of when it will end are all now layered over already fraught single lifestyles. One young woman in New York admitted that “...loneliness has definitely started to hit. I have great friends and family, but a relationship is still missing, and who knows when that will be back up and running.”
In TT, the realities of dating are no less puzzling or frustrating. Online and in-person options exist, but anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that results are unsatisfying. But relationships are one discussion, sex is another.
As one sexual wellness expert reminds, sexual activity increases oxytocin which “reduces anxiety, stress, blood pressure, pain and in general improves mental and emotional health.” Even in the height of the crisis here, officials complained that one of the reasons offered for breaching the stay-at-home rules was “going to meet meh boyfriend.”
It is possible that covid19 is about to widen the cracks in many fragile family and relationship dynamics locally and around the world. Governments may well have to consider guidelines for navigating this new reality.
Still, I am sure that if my grandmother was with us, all of this analysis would mean little to her. She would push out her mouth and pull in the door. Coronavirus would not get in, and I would not be able to get out. Well, not while she was looking anyway. What? I promise I would not even hold hands. I promise.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN