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"Right" Leisure During COVID-19: When Our Leisure Choices Are More Than Each of Us

I would like to open this blog by saying what's a super-cliche at this point: I hope this blog finds you and your family well.

By now, many of us have experienced months of lockdown and/or eased physical distancing. As I wrote in the previous blog, this has impacted our leisure and quality of life substantially, not to mention other domains of life such as work and family. It has not been easy, and has been particularly difficult for members of certain social groups (e.g., folks with pre-existing conditions, parents, older adults). So, let's give us a big high-five for what we have achieved so far.

Yesterday (5/24, Sunday), I took a walk in the River Valley area, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. For those who you don't know, the City of Edmonton has a fairly large river coming through its center. Along the river, there are walking paths, recreation facilities, golf courses, and forest. I saw thousands of people (if not tends of thousands) there "recreating" yesterday -- running, cycling, sunbathing, picnicking, playing tennis, fishing, etc. I could see some not following physical distancing measures (e.g., staying 2 meters away) unless this city has somehow got so many polygamous families (e.g., some picnic groups with 4-6 adults). And of course, I was the only one who was wearing a mask. This got me thinking as a leisure scholar.

To an extent, I understand this. I myself has been tired of staying at home. Here in Edmonton, it has just become warmer and we will have a spring/summer only until August/September. The Province of Alberta is gradually reopening in terms of small business and health services. We have also recorded some days without any new cases (although high or low case numbers itself don't necessarily mean good or bad). Compared to the rest of Canada (and the U.S.A), Alberta seems to be doing relatively well in terms of casualty, positive test rates (except for the southern beef factory), and available medical/non-medical resources (except for the on-going battle between the government and medical practitioners). So, why not go out and hang out? Moreover, psychologically, many people may want to reclaim their freedom at least in their leisure. This is what's called "psychological reactance." Did you see a baby not playing with a toy, but once someone took it from her, she got obsessed with it? That. Arguably, leisure is a life domain where we have the highest level of perceived freedom. When our perceived freedom is threatened by the physical distancing measures and other regulations during COVID-19, it's understandable that we want to reclaim it at least in our leisure.

But, that's a psychological story and just one aspect. We know COVID-19 is a larger issue. This blog is about another aspect: social and environmental justice. For some of us, the word "leisure" does not easily link to phrases like "social justice" and "environmental justice." However, if you Google (or Google Scholar) these keywords, you will see many leisure scholars have written and conducted research on this subject, including Drs. William Stewart, Corey Johnson, Diana Parry, and so many others.

How is leisure related to social and environmental justice during COVID-19? Let's think. We have abundant evidence that both physical activities and exposure with nature are integral to our well-being -- perhaps especially so during this stressful time. We ALL NEED to be somewhat active and feel nature. Now, if we are crowding primary spaces for physical and outdoor activities (e.g., River Valley), then we are indirectly saying to people with higher risks, "Don't come to these places (or take the chance)." The point here is that those of us who can dare to go to these places tend to be "privileged" ones. Take me as an example. I am in my 30s and don't have (known) pre-existing conditions. The situation is disproportionately impacting those with certain backgrounds, such as being older, having conditions, caring for older people, working in medicine, etc.

But, why can't I do what I want during my leisure? Isn't that my business (and none else's)? This is how we conceptualize leisure usually -- especially (I would observe) in North America and Europe. Yet, decades of research in leisure studies show that our leisure choices could negate leisure access or lower quality of leisure for others. And I would argue that this is more so during extreme circumstances like COVID-19.

In my leisure study courses, I advocate that (some) leisure is a basic human right. Yes, we have the right to do some exercise ideally outdoor. But, I would argue that when we start to crowd spaces for these activities, we are also violating others' right -- especially for those who are arguably less privileged than us. We have a right as far as we don't violate others'. And a right comes with responsibilities. Once someone gave me one of the best advice my life so far: "Shin, often things are not about just you." I think this applies here. Now, our leisure choices are not just about each of us. They are about our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our community members.

Of course, there would not be one "right" leisure. Personally, I feel that what's right could change to an extent across situations. And the COVID-19 situations will be changing fairly dramatically. So, each of us would have to constantly reflect on what might be right in a given situation. And we will make mistakes, too. That's fine. Now, what I am hoping here is that we will keep thinking of what's right when we choose our leisure. I would like to believe that by thinking of what's right, we will be able to survive this together.

Alternative leisure options: quiet exercise videos, virtual escape room games, Netflix parties with friends, many artistic/cultural activities, learning and reading...

Good luck. See you on the other side.