How long has it been since someone gave you a hug? Would you measure in minutes or hours? Days or weeks? Or are you among those who have spent months without this basic form of touch?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with people. With social distancing the new norm, people who live alone are at even greater risk of missing out on physical contact, which provides a sense of well-being and belonging.

In our response to the pandemic, we have made touch the privilege of those who can isolate with family or have a social bubble readily accessible. That means we have inadvertently created an almost untouchable class of people who must stay at a distance for the safety of the vulnerable. If these untouchable individuals can afford to pay for services such as a haircut or a massage, they may find some reprieve. But the daily reality of physical distancing creates an assumption that phone calls and smiles from two metres away should be enough.

It’s time to ask, “Is touch really optional?” I was recently talking with my spiritual director about my own challenges of experiencing intimacy with God when I have not been hugged in more than four months. She tried to help me find alternatives to cope with the situation, but it feels like knowing someone needs food and offering them water, along with the opportunity to talk about how difficult it is to live without food. There is just no substitute for a proper hug!

Like thousands of other Canadians, I haven’t chosen to live like this. It was chosen for me, mostly by people who do not live alone, people in our new “privileged” class. Yet, I know this was not what they intended. It is a type of collateral damage, but one that is not well considered by those who enjoy regular connection with family.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, touch plays an important role. From taking the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law while she suffered from a fever (see Mark 1:31), to blessing children by placing his hands on them (see Luke 18:15), to touching a man in order to heal his leprosy (see Matthew 8:3), Jesus understood that words are not the only way to communicate love and acceptance.

When Peter was called by Jesus to walk on water, he quickly became anxious about the wind and waves around him. It was not until the reassuring grasp of Jesus’ hand on Peter that the storm quieted and he knew he was safe (see Matthew 14:31). And we can’t forget that one of Jesus’ last acts of service to his disciples before the Crucifixion was to offer intimate touch by washing their feet (see John 13:5).

Even in his parables, Jesus speaks of the exuberant hug of a father to celebrate the return of his lost son (see Luke 15:20). Reconciliation for the son needed touch as much as a father’s reassuring words.

It isn’t fair to say we have forgotten the importance of touch, but perhaps it would be accurate to suggest we assumed the lockdowns and isolation would be temporary and, for that reason, the lack of touch would not matter much. But after months of social and physical distancing, it is necessary to reconsider where we are and how we got here.

Recently, I was on a webinar with my local public health unit. We had experienced increasing cases of COVID-19 in the previous weeks after university students returned to town for the new academic year. I was astonished to hear these young, lonely people described as “irresponsible” for attending parties, when they had not been provided with reasonable alternatives to connect with their peers. For many young people, the risks of isolation were greater than their personal risks from COVID-19. But most people on the webinar did not consider the needs of the “untouchable” class and instead felt it was appropriate to blame and shame them for the rising cases in the community.

Is this who we wish to be? Are we considering what sort of people we will become when the unprivileged can be rejected and excluded so easily? The Salvation Army has always shown concern for the downtrodden and outcast within society. It is time to consider that COVID-19 has created a new class of people, marginalized by distancing, rejected from healthy and appropriate touch.

By no means should we ignore those whose primary vulnerability is to the coronavirus, but the conversation in the community does not suggest a lack of concern there. The silenced voices are those who are “irresponsible” for identifying their need for physical contact, a need that cannot be mediated through technology.

As an organization, we need to consider if there is a new kind of discrimination emerging that we did not intend to create. If we value service and dignity, we need to begin asking what that looks like in the age of COVID-19. Are there people in our communities who can safely connect with those who are hurting and lonely because of distancing? Can we protect the vulnerable without creating a new underclass of “untouchable” people?

The Salvation Army has a history of creatively responding to needs when we see them, so I am confident that all of this is possible. My hope is that we can see what has been invisible because there are hurting people who need us.

Captain Lynda Wakelin is the executive director of The Salvation Army’s London Village, Ont.

 Illustration: yokunen/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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