Keep Your (Social) Distance

Signage in a London Underground station recommending social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 2020

By now, we all know the drill: stay six feet apart, stay at home, STAY! (like a good obedient dog). Social distancing—or better, physical distancing (we can still stay close socially)—is a fact of life in social relationships in order to combat the coronavirus. It means allowing more space between people and sharing items less. People are complying with social-distancing measures not only out of a natural impulse to self-protect but also for altruistic motives aimed at protecting the vulnerable among us. A tendency to conform and an aversion to rule-breaking play a role too. Even people who, under normal circumstances, value their individual freedom more than safety or security are making an effort to adopt physical distancing. (For guidelines on how and why to do so, see the links below.)

Humans are not made for this, needless to say. So it is not surprising our societies are not organized in ways that make it easy to conduct life and work at (2–3) arms’ length. We are social creatures; we have basic needs to touch and be touched, to see each other face-to-face, to gather and associate. “Public health” may seem abstract, unless one works in the health care field or has a loved one suffering the effects of the pandemic. Physical distancing is especially hard on friends or family who are prevented from seeing each other because of visitation limits, such as at nursing homes.

Most people understand basically how infectious diseases spread and view the restrictions as reasonable, temporary limitations in response to a very contagious virus. We all hope the measures will save lives. But such physical distancing is unnatural and unsustainable in the longer term. Sheltering-in-place is for tornadoes. Mask-wearing is for Halloween. People have a need to be among fellow humans in groups larger than 10—whether for religious or political or entertainment purposes.

We humans also are extremely creative. “We” invented the Internet, telecommunications, social media, etc. So we are evolving ways to conduct our lives—working from home, remote/distance learning, Zoom calls, as well as new ways of greeting. Government-mandated social isolation is vital for now, but it alone won’t get us through this crisis. Not everyone is staying home: a veritable army of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers; truckers and delivery drivers, essential-business workers, farmers and first-responders, medical equipment makers, lab researchers, grocery store cashiers, and others are, of necessity, going out and getting things done. As most of us hunker down, let’s remember to appreciate them.

Image credit: © Chris Aubrey/Alamy

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