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Getting lonelier: the forbidden spaces of sociality during the lockdown in Santiago

Alfonso Otaegui27 July 2020

“I hope that I will overcome this [the pandemic], given that us, older adults, are more susceptible to being attacked by this bloody virus”, says Don Francisco. Don Francisco is a 78-year-old retired electrician. He lives in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the western part of Santiago, not far from the central train station. He lives alone, as he is a widower and has no children, no siblings, nor any remaining family. Since lockdown started in March, I have had regular contact with Don Francisco every week through WhatsApp. He is one of the former students of my smartphone workshops.

As I said in a previous post, the COVID-19 crisis —and its corollary, the quarantine—have mostly enhanced what was already there: inequality, insecurity, instability of the job market. When it comes to older adults such as Don Francisco, it has revealed the relevance of little everyday interactions and the impact of digital exclusion.

Due to the lockdown, Don Francisco has seen his usual spaces of sociality reduced. His messages week after week constitute a collection of everyday interactions that are no longer possible. He regrets not being able to access the now closed big park near his house, where he used to stroll every now and then, sometimes sitting on a bench and watch people passing by. “There is no one in the streets, no one”, he highlights. Much of the social life of Don Francisco takes the shape of everyday chores: buying vegetables at the fair, going to the supermarket, getting the newspapers at the train station. Little opportunities for little dialogues.

Street market in Santiago during the lockdown. CCNC-BY Alfonso Otaegui

“With the neighbours, now I barely see them, we only meet when it is ‘street market’ day. We meet at the market and just give each other a short wave from afar, as we are holding bags… but at least when we see each other, we know we are fine, right?”. 

At the street market, Don Francisco enjoys short interactions with the vendors, who usually cry out their offers to passers-by, all potential customers. “We know each other with the vendors. We chat about our health […] I see families running the same stall, the son selling, while the father is sitting behind, watching, resting. It is so nice to see families united like this”, he adds. Lockdown has prevented Don Francisco from having his more intimate dialogues with his family – the cemetery where he used to go and see his relatives is shut.  Besides, the closing of all churches has taken other moments of reflection from him.

Going to the bakery provides another chance for greetings and smiles: “I now buy bread every three days, to avoid going out too often. With the bakers, I used to have a short conversation. Sometimes, even the master making the bread would come out to say hi to us, the oldest oneswho are in more danger.” All these little everyday interactions are spaces of socialisation for older adults such as Don Francisco, especially if they are alone. All these small interactions have been reduced or put on hold in the last four months.

Don Francisco’s experience also illustrates the limitations and contradictions of some of the measures taken to enforce lockdown. In Santiago, it is mandatory to have an official permit to go out. This can be downloaded from the police station’s website. Policemen patrolling the streets and security guards at the entrance of the supermarkets usually ask for this permit. After being mugged on the street last year, Don Francisco rarely goes out with his smartphone. ‘They prevented me from entering three supermarkets because I did not have the permit..!’ —Don Francisco complains vividly—‘I hope we, older adults, do not starve. Who is going to feed old loners like me, if we can’t go into the supermarket?” Fortunately, one supermarket allows him to go in without the permit. “I will not say the name, in case this conversation is intercepted”, adds Don Francisco in a WhatsApp voice note. As much as he likes technology, he is also worried about unwanted surveillance.

Digital literacy can be a powerful tool for older adults to fight isolation. Don Francisco loves gadgets, from the solar-powered moving flowers he has in his little garden, to the old mobile phones he repairs to pass the time during the lockdown. He is well-versed in the use of the smartphone. Many of his contacts, however, are not. “Last week I talked to Doña María, she is a charming lady about my age, but the phone call lasted 10 minutes…that is too expensive!”—he shares in another audio message. Indeed, phone plans are very affordable if one restricts themselves to WhatsApp communication but expensive when it comes to regular phone calls. Don Francisco uses WhatsApp with me regularly and we often have WhatsApp calls of up to an hour, sometimes even more. He also receives many WhatsApp chain messages from a couple of his contacts. Still, Don Francisco considers these to be a lower form of communication. “Those are things people do not write, they just forward them”, he states with a dismissive tone. Now and then, however, he expresses gratitude in WhatsApp groups when someone forwards a video of an old song he liked.

Despite all the setbacks, Don Francisco is eager to ‘overcome the pandemic’. He really wants to see the world post-COVID-19. For the time being, the pandemic has made him a little lonelier. Now and then, Don Francisco even takes his smartphone when he goes out and uses it to film the streets. He sends me a video message while sitting on a bench in an empty square.

This is one of the things I miss the most’—he says—‘sitting on a bench, looking at people passing by. Sometimes one of them will sit down next to me, and we will chat. I miss that a lot.’

The Full Moon on WeChat — by Xinyuan Wang

Xin Yuan Wang10 October 2019

fig. 1

11 am, UK time, 13th September, in China it’s already early evening. Mrs. Tong (59), one of my research participants in Shanghai, sent me a WeChat animated sticker of a bright full moon surrounded by three joyful bouncing bunnies, saying ‘Happy Mid-autumn day!’ (fig. 1) This is just one of hundreds of stickers, emoji, short videos, or animated albums to do with the full moon or moon cakes that circulated among friends and family members on WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China (fig. 2) on the day of Chinese mid-autumn festival.

Falling on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the mid-autumn festival, or the ‘moon festival’, happened to be 13th September this year. Untouched by ‘western’ superstition surrounding Friday 13th, my WeChat profile ushered in the warmest greetings and festival wishes from a wide range of WeChat contacts from China many from my Shanghai field site which I left this June.

Mid-autumn festival is said to be second important national festival next to the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, on the festival day, family members gather to offer sacrifice (e.g. moon cakes) to the moon, appreciate the bright full moon at night, eat moon cakes, and express affection and sentiment of missing toward family members and friends who live afar.

Well, ‘live afar’ probably will be redefined as Mr. Huang (75), another research participant in Shanghai, said as a goodbye wish: “Even living in the same city, friends meet on WeChat. Live near or afar, it matters much less once you are on WeChat. So see you on WeChat.” Mr. Huang is indeed right. Three months after leaving the field work, I still feel deeply involved in the loop of neighbours’ gossips or the troublesome relationship of mother and daughter-in-law. I constantly get updates about the daily quarrels between the cat living on the 15th floor and the dog on the 20th floor, the routine exercises and activities in the old people’s home 5,700 miles away from London, all thanks to WeChat.

Back in London, my colleague Marilia asked me whether it was difficult to leave the field site. I shook my head: it is not difficult, it is simply IMPOSSIBLE. It may very well be the same case for other anthropologists in the age of smartphone: we meet people on social media, be it WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, so that even if there is an end to the field work, there will be no full stop to the constant connection with people from the field site online.

How long will the full moon appear? Wine cup in hand, I ask the sky… Why then when people part, is the moon often full and bright? People have sorrow and joy; they part and meet again. The moon is bright or dim; it waxes and wanes. Nothing in history has ever been perfect.” Those melancholy words written on a mid-autumn festival 900 years ago by the great poet Su Shi, still influence nowadays Chinese people’s interpretation and aesthetic appreciation of the moon.

Every year, on this particular night, the bright full moon conjures the collective hallucination of ‘togetherness’ among Chinese people: no matter where you are, we are looking at the same moon, and we are bathing in the same moonlight together. Almost millennium ago, clever ancient Chinese have created the ‘mega-symbol’ moon to visualize and mediate the affections in long distance. Problem solved.

fig. 2

Alas, the perfect solution doesn’t work in the face of ‘time difference’ caused by really long distance in the ‘global village’. When my Chinese friends admired the full moon at night, I hadn’t even finished the first coffee during the day. However, before I saw the full moon on the sky, I had been bathing in the moonlight on WeChat during the day. One tends to think the full moon in the sky is more ‘real’ than the full moon on WeChat, but, is it? Would the moon in the sky be the same moon had it not been wrapped with the poetic imagination of ‘togetherness’ from generation to generation in China? If it is all about the shared imagination within the specific group of population, then the moon on WeChat shared among Chinese people is definitely more ‘real’ than the moon in the sky of the unlucky Friday the 13th.

Sometimes I am wondering, had poet Su Shi lived in today’s world, on the grand mid-autumn festival, whether he would still ask the sky for the full moon, holding the wine cup high, or, would he be equally satisfied by sending the full moon on WeChat, holding the smartphone tight.