The five stages of grief have occupied their fair share of time. We must accept this changing reality by understanding social distancing in the times of a pandemic.
What hits hardest about any tragedy is the unknown. COVID-19 is a tragedy, make no mistake. The loss of life; economic, social, and cultural erosion; no one saw it coming, owing to political mismanagement – the signs are all there. But we leave it to literature to mull over what’s lost forever.
The golden rule of recovery rests on differentiating between what’s known to be true and what’s thought to be true. Facts are a precious commodity, but also rapidly evolve in the times of a pandemic. What’s understood to be true for some time now calls for radical change in personal behaviour – and there’s no time to wait.
The only thing that has potentially slowed down the spread of the virus is extreme social distancing. China’s Hubei province was put under a harsh lockdown in January, and yesterday, it recorded no new local infections. Before the Communist Party asked people to self-quarantine or sealed off access to most public places, cases in China were increasing exponentially. Now, the country is placing itself as a pioneer of coordinating the global response.
South Korea has positioned itself as a model to emulate – it reported a peak in cases at 909 on 29th February, as opposed to the 74 new cases this week. In addition to the sweeping efforts to isolate infected people and carry out mass testing, voluntary social distancing has allowed for a fraction of hope. Singapore has also been successful in slowing the spread of the virus by cancelling public gatherings, distributing sanitisers, and carrying out testing.
This is public health we’re gambling with, and we’ve already lost more than 8,000 people for being steps behind. How do we catch up and mitigate the loss to life and living? By stepping back from society.
Social Distancing – how? Let’s get the concept right.
People who have the authority to make decisions and the power to influence people need to prepare the stage for a behavioural revolution.
When we ask someone to socially distance, we expect them to avoid going to public places and social gatherings, eschew all non-essential travel, and minimise mobility at an extreme level.
The science behind it is based on “flattening the curve” – the curve being the number of people who will contract the virus over a period of time. The idea is to slow the spread of the virus so that fewer people will seek treatment at any given time – this helps to prevent healthcare systems from collapsing and overall records a lower death rate over time.
A notable example is the response of Philadelphia and St. Louis in the U.S. to the 1918 influenza. According to In an interview with NPR, Drew Harris, a health researcher, compared the mitigation policies of both the cities. Philadelphia adopted the route many political leaders started with – by ignoring all warnings and luring everyone into a false sense of calm. It went on to host a massive parade which congregated hundreds of thousands of people. Eventually, people began to show symptoms within two-three days, and 16,000 people died in the city.
In a sharp contrast to this, St. Louis acted prudently. It closed down schools, restricted travel, and encouraged everyone to practice social distancing. The city recorded 2,000 deaths over the whole period, as a result.
There’s a reason government advisories are now switching gears and advising people from stepping out. Worried about that spring trip to the mountains or beach which you had planned months ago? Cancel. Big meeting to discuss a path-breaking project? Hello, technology. Crave a drink at the pub with mates you haven’t seen for ages? Make do with a call or text. Then the golden word, the gospel truth, the holy grail begins and ends at cancelling everything.
It seems a bit much, no?
It does, but that doesn’t mean it’s not needed. Our identity belongs as much to the individual as it does to the society – in other words, it’s not just about you. By going out, even if it’s for work or running an errand, you’re putting a countless number of people at risk.
Let’s say it’s a grocery run. You touch the door on your way in, pick and drop things from shelves, come in contact with the cashier, might even squeeze in a cough or sneeze here and there, tag the door on your way out, and god knows the number of people you may leave your mark on your way over. Throughout this process, you function as a vector to the virus, and it poses a significant risk to you, your family, and the people they come in contact with.
Sooner you understand the social responsibility of your individual action, the easier would it be to control your movements.
Unfortunately, not everyone can do this
Social distancing is a privilege. Sitting in your rooms, cooped up with comfort and necessities is a privilege. Let that settle in. And for people who don’t have this privilege, we must compensate.
There is a high cost for this loss of activity. When people stay home, cab drivers and business owners don’t get revenue. When schools and universities shut down, millions of students who relied on meal plans and intellectual resources are deprived of necessities. When people don’t go to work, they risk losing out on their income, daily wage, which is crucial to their survival.
It falls upon social institutions to mitigate these costs, and we must hold leaders accountable. Governments are putting plans in place to offer paid sick leaves, opening channels to distribute mid-day meals to children who relied on schools for sustenance, providing relief to business owners to cushion the blow, making testing free and widely available, and extending bill payments to allay fears. These are measured, humane responses to a healthcare crisis; if this doesn’t sound like something the government in your country is investing in, exercise your privilege to rally for these causes.
Having the choice to stay in is one of the many markers of inequality during these troubling times. The person delivering your food or the cab driver waiting for hours to get a ride risk their lives because they are stripped of this choice. The social responsibility is too colossal and critical to be ignored.
I never fathomed we would live in times when the smallest thing can make a difference in life and death. It felt far too fictitious and extraordinary to be true. Our incredulity and resistance have already left us paces behind, and the only way we can avoid succumbing to helplessness is taking charge of the little control we have. Our normal needs to change, and I propose we begin by cancelling a few things out.