5 thoughts about polyamory and the COVID-19 pandemic

** Written in mid March 2020

I guess I’m a little late to the party in writing this, since the outbreak has been ongoing for some months now with closed borders and lockdowns happening in some countries, but I thought I’d add my two cents as a sex and relationship educator. 

1. Poly folks already know that illnesses spread within networks, constellations and polycules.

So, I feel like I’m already speaking to the converted when I talk about contagion, risk and the poly community. It is even covered at length in a popular poly bible. Better than that, though, I think most of us have personal experience with a cold/flu virus making its way around our local poly community or our own poly network. For some, this experience will be a humorous anecdote, while for others (especially folks like me with Asthma) it will be a cautionary tale. 

We are also more concerned than the average human about sexually transmitted infections, and most large poly discussion groups have posts just about every week about how to have ethical safer sex discussions and how information about sex and fluid bonding should be shared between partners. This is not new to any of us. We consider this stuff when we make decisions about our own sexual health risk. Personally, I became a lot more risk-averse in relation to STI’s when I and two of my partners got Bacterial Vaginosis (which is not considered an STI, but bloody well should be). After a year of it making the rounds between us, I took some British Medical Journal articles with me and my two partners to a clinic and we all got treated at the same time (even though we hadn’t all got positive test results). The result: I got rid of the blasted thing and it hasn’t returned even though we are now years later. 

Long story short – we know that the intimate contact we have with folks within our poly community / network / polycule is highly likely to mean that if we carry on with business as normal we will all get sick if one of us does. 

2. We have a high proportion of chronically ill and disabled folks in our community

So I’m just going on anecdotal evidence here, but disabled and chronically ill people are over-represented in my poly community and my poly network. We are the folks that are at the highest risk if we do catch this virus, especially folks that are recovering from surgery, have circulatory or respiratory illness or have diabetes (especially if it is uncontrolled). Even those folks that don’t have chronically ill, disabled or elderly folks in their polycule may be caring for others who have risk factors. After all, this virus doesn’t really care whether you’re sharing germs with your lover, friend, parent, fellow public transport passenger, or employer. If you’re someone that is disabled or chronically ill you might find this guide helpful for preparing for your own self-isolation

All of the above is to say that we are very interconnected, and most of us are likely to be interconnected with someone that has substantial risk factors. Being sensitive to that can mean lots of things. For some, it may mean staying away while or taking actions to flatten the curve. For others it could be about pulling together community support. You can find some really amazing resources on mapping your people (not just mapping your polycule) here.

3. The freedom and responsibility bind – whose health are you risking?

We all have the right to choose our actions, and the level of exposure risk that we are willing to assume. Nevertheless, the risks we take aren’t merely individual, they have a knock on impact on others. This is especially the case if you are sharing housing, especially if you share a bathroom and kitchen. If you can, it makes sense to talk to the people that you live with about their risk status. It also makes sense to see whether you can make agreements about whether and what measures you are going to take collectively to reduce your collective risk and flatten the curve. Things to consider:

  • Are you comfortable with existing agreements about your shared spaces and private spaces in your home?
  • Do you need to agree on new cleaning duties?
  • Do you want to consider restrictions on who can come into your shared spaces and/or how much time you spend together in shared spaces? 
  • Do you want to agree that you will all wash your hands as soon as you enter the house?
  • Do you want to agree that folks will wipe down any surfaces they touched before washing their hands?
  • Do you want to ask folks to have their temperature checked before they come into shared space?
  • Do you want to ask people to wear masks in shared space?
  • Do you want to limit visits of people that don’t live in the house?
  • Do you want to have rules about whether folks with cold/flu symptoms can come into shared space?
  • Do you want to agree to any other flattening the curve measures?

Some of these things are likely to feel draconian, hierarchical, or not workable. Others might feel like just the right solution. The list is not comprehensive. My take is that if there is someone high risk in your network or home, you might want to err more on the side of caution.  If you have the ability to, you might want to voluntarily self isolate with that person until the outbreak is more under control. 

4. Social distancing is hard when you love people and also need physical distance

It royally sucks to be the person that can’t see their lover because of a contagion — especially a theoretical one. I know, I’ve been there. The interaction of two of my disabilities makes colds and flus particularly risky for my physical and mental health. I have cancelled many dates, exciting time together and just lovely activities because one of my partners was getting the sniffles (even when it might be an allergy). I’ve also cancelled when I have been sick in order not to infect them. There is no way around it. It sucks. Especially when you don’t live with your partner and don’t get to see them nearly as much as you’d like. It is totally valid to be upset and to grieve the loss of time together. 

5. Poly folks are inventive and we can find ways to be apart together

I’ve seen SO MANY articles about how to stay connected when you’re in a long-distance relationship. My favourite things to do are to have online dates, share a project, share a Netflix series and watch it together, read a book together, play scrabble online (which I’m horrible at, thanks dyslexia), have dinner together apart (sometimes even cooking the same thing!). Of course, none of these things is the same as crawling into bed with your lover for a cuddle, but they have helped me to feel more loved by and connected with my partner. They might work for you too.

A final note — there are a couple of very hopeful drug trials happening, one of drug that is cheap, easy to manufacture and well tolerated by most people (not to mention out of patent). Doctors and researchers need as much time as possible to test these drugs – and the longer we can delay the peak of this pandemic the more likely vulnerable folks are to survive because they are more likely to have access to effective treatment. So, please consider taking all the measures to ‘flatten the curve’ that you reasonably can. You won’t go far wrong if you put into place for yourself the measures that you think would be appropriate for the person you know with the highest risk of experiencing serious complications if they caught this virus, or as close to those measures as you reasonably can.

A final, final note. Financially, this virus is affecting disabled people and precarious workers the most, especially sex workers. If you can please donate to their organisations, food banks and directly to workers themselves. I’ve linked to a few, but look for them in your own area too!

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