COVID-19 and the “Social Distancing” Paradox.

Social distancing has become synonymous with the arrival of SAR-CoV-2 and the global COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more people become sick and COVID-19 takes more lives one of the tactics being used to fight transmission is the idea of social distancing. Essentially avoiding social gatherings, staying in your homes and remaining six feet away from other people.

The virus is spread via droplets such as those expelled when you sneeze or cough and six feet is generally enough space for gravity to do its job. This means the majority of transmissions are likely to happen from surfaces we touch or come in contact with followed by touching our faces or eyes or noses.

The idea of remaining physically at distances from other people around you and staying away from places where people normally congregate makes sense. If another person cannot directly cough on you and you aren’t touching surfaces where tens, hundreds or thousands of people have been before you limits your exposure to the virus and prevents asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus to others.

I don’t think anyone would suggest the concept of staying apart is a bad idea but the terminology we are using to describe it may not be promoting the best outcomes. Humans are social, we need social contact. It is one of our strengths and it has helped us survive through our short existence as a species.

Sometimes when we are alone we fail to see the signs of our destructive behaviours, our vulnerabilities or our spiral into illness until it is to late. It is our social contacts, our families, our friends, who first recognize the signs and sound the alarm bells. To use and example from another context it is very easy for an elderly person living alone to not recognize when they are overheating on a very hot summer day.  They are more likely to survive when their family and friends are engaged and available to recognize the signs. Lack of social contact is why so many elderly individuals die in the heat of the summer.

Social distancing suggests we are going it alone. It suggest withdrawing from society and promotes an “every person for themselves” mentality. During this outbreak it has manifested itself in many ways such as the hoarding of necessities, the petty prejudices against certain ethnic groups and the breakdown of basic civility like people fighting over rolls of toilet paper at the market. A message that emphasizes the me attitude leads to a breakdown of our social networks. We share a symbiotic relationship with the people around us. We keep each other balanced and we look out for each other. We need each other. When we turn our backs on our social nature the vulnerable in our society suffer the most. During other disasters throughout history people relied on each other to ensure we all survived. Keeping in contact with loved ones, checking in on friends and family and ensuring they are ok are important and social contact cannot be devalued as a survival strategy.

We do not need to social distance to beat this virus, we need to strengthen our social networks and empower everyone to defeat our microscopic enemy. I recommend being smart and listen to the advice of the experts, remain “physically distant” from your family, friends and colleagues but for yourself and the vulnerable in your social circles now is the time to reach out and “socially engage” in unique ways that prevents the spread of COVID-19 but helps us to recognize and act when those we care about the most are in trouble, so that we can be there when they need us the most.

So keep in contact with your family, remain available to your friends and check in on your neighbours. Together, can we maximize the number of lives we save and ultimately defeat COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 Greg Glazebrook, All Rights Reserved.

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