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Position Pieces

Vol 8 No 1: April issue

Social distance forever? Or, What is a Horizon for ‘Being near, Together with Others’?

December 15, 2020
April 23, 2021


In light of COVID-19 infection control measures, which establish a minimum distance of 6 feet between bodies, many have emphasised the need to maintain social closeness despite physical distance. This Position Piece considers the flip side of this concern: in key spaces that structure social interactions in the US today, physical closeness does not equal social closeness. ‘This country is like a prison,’ one of my interlocutors told me, pointing to carceral histories of social distancing that predateCOVID-19. Moreover, in the co-constituted spaces of criminalisation and justice, punishment and care, distance and proximity, and carceral freedom, the physical closeness of people that couldhave registered as social closeness is precluded, culminating in deadly disregard. Drawing on my medical training and on fieldwork documentation of medical harms in the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention apparatus, I consider how non-responsiveness spreads within and beyond institutions of immigration enforcement. I suggest that medical providers are implicated in what I call ‘contagious containment’—that is, the impulse to distance oneself from harmful realities in which one’s clinical practice is complicit. This distancing reinforces the idea of humanity being a scarce resource, especially when the racialised stratification of economic and political resources is preserved in and through institutions like ICE detention. Contagious containment offers the fantasy of separating one’s clinical work from the apparatus of harming and, so long as such reservoirs of life-threatening disregard remain, such contagion can (and does) spread.