Two by Two:  How ‘People Like You’ enter Noah’s Ark

Celia Lury and Sophie Day

10 May 2021

Celia Lury and Sophie Day

10 May 2021

It is nearly a year since we began a blog on Coronavirus-19’s 2 metre rule as a grid reaction with the phrase We are all now familiar with what 2 metres looks like”. In case we had forgotten, Government advice on social distancing told us in a blog (Professor Anne Mackie) on 5 June 2020 that 2 metres is 6 feet 7 inches, three steps or the length of a double bed:



The NHS and HM Government helpfully explained that a bed was the same as 2 benches, 3 fridges and 4 chairs. Elsewhere, two metres is said to be equivalent to two shopping trolleys, one small bear, one seal, one reindeer, one caribou, “the distance from a cougar’s nose to the tip of its tail”, an adult kangaroo, various measurements based on different fish and so forth. To help the general public put these lengths into practice, space is divided, with markings on the ground for queues, benches in public parks made unusable, and chairs in vaccination clinics carefully isolated from each other. In this blog, we are interested in saying more about what, how and who is being operated by the rule of two metres.

Consider first, what entity or unit is being kept part of or apart from another: an individual, a parent, a household?  Sometimes the unit of a household is encouraged to fit into the unit of an individual. Shop alone.



Sometimes a parent-to-be is required to be (a)(l)one.

As ones, it might seem as if we can be counted in terms of simple  addition:

But complications ensue. Is a group of six two families from two households, six individuals from six households, or a count of six from one household?

How am I or you ‘a/part’ of or from each other? Does the 2 metre rule imply we should stand by each other, one by one, two by two?

Rather than addition, we suggest that the grid reactions prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic are better understood to operate in terms of multiplication and division, that is, in terms of the operator ‘by’ rather than the ‘and’ of addition. Just as the 2 by 2 of Noah’s Ark ensured the heterosexual reproduction of the animal kingdom, the 2 by 2 grid of the pandemic ensures selective reproduction of a population, but does so in new, more varied ways.

Noah’s Ark (1846) by Edward Hicks, Philadelphia Museum of Art

(public domain)

The sequencing of the operation of ‘by’ – multiplication and division – in the 2 by 2 of the pandemic has very particular implications for who gets counted: for who may go outside and who may stay inside, for who must go out, and who must stay in. It makes a ‘new normal’ that tests and re-tests and meets and joins different kinds of people, sorting them out (or in) as individuals, parents (to be), carers (of children or grandparents), shielders and shielded. The contemporary 2 by 2 is not only what enables the bio-social variables employed in models to be put into dimensions of time and space but also an operation that categorizes ‘people like you’, stratifying people into those who can – and can’t – count for one.

‘By and by’ originally meant ‘one by one’ (reported in Chaucer), ‘side by side’ and also ‘on and on’ or in due course.  Side by side can suggest the incidental, beside the point, in passing, as in ‘by the by(e).’ A passage from Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1846-8) reads,

 “So they got back to the coach, long before the coachman expected them; and Walter, putting Susan and Mrs Richards inside, took his seat on the box himself that there might be no more mistakes, and deposited them safely in the hall of Mr Dombey’s house—where, by the bye, he saw a mighty nosegay lying, which reminded him of the one Captain Cuttle had purchased in his company that morning.”

The phrase often marked a development in one line of a story that would connect with others over time, a development that Benedict Anderson (1991) charted in his discussion of the importance of ‘meanwhile’ for the making of the imagined community of the nation.

In place of the security of the ‘meanwhile’ of the nineteenth century novel in which actions in one time and place would inevitably, albeit unknown to the characters themselves, connect the futures of each to the other, the contemporary ‘by the by’ of the pandemic dictates or recommends a moving ratio, punctuating and stratifying the reproduction of the population. ‘By the by’ is no longer an incidental aside that may be beside the point or a ‘meanwhile’ of time passing in imagined synchrony but rather a flexible operator of who is counted in and out of gridded time-space, with consequences for who continues to live and who is left to die.

Even in a crisis, this operator does not supplant but combines with others. The self-possessed individual of liberalism – who can be summed into households, socio-demographically defined groups and nation-states – continues to assume an a priori significance. But, ‘by the by’ contributes a fluidity and uncertainty to these groupings and categories, including and excluding people more variously. ‘By’ multiplies, divides and sequences flows through counts of space by time and time by space, continuously, perhaps incidentally, and in a novel simultaneity.



Anderson, Benedict. 1991 [1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  London: Verso.

Day, Sophie and Lury, Celia. 2020. Coronavirus-19’s 2 metre rule as a grid reaction