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Social Distancing

Social distancing. It seems to be the rallying cry of the year 2020. Stand six feet apart. Don’t travel out of town. Stay at home whenever possible. Avoid bars, nightclubs, and other crowded venues. Limit the capacity of indoor businesses. No more fans at sporting events. Wash your hands often and wear a face covering. I heard the advice just the same as the rest of you. My general reaction was ‘OK, I’ll do those things. I do most of them anyway. This is no big deal. Yawn’. I hate crowded places. I can count on one hand the times I have entered an establishment that could credibly be called a ‘bar’ and I’ve never even considered going to a nightclub. I tend to shop at odd hours to avoid crowds anyway so I’m unlikely to notice the change. Same with restaurants, I avoid the rush. I’m already a dedicated hand washer and I don’t mind an excuse to get even more neurotic about it. I like my sports, but I mostly watch on TV, and if it’s only on TV for a while, that’s OK by me. The mask is a minor discomfort, but not worth raising a big stink over.

No big deal right? Wrong! Everybody is nuts. A lot of people are out of work. It’s been two months since George Floyd and people are still rioting. Could be because they’re all jobless now thanks to lock downs and legitimately have nothing better to do. Arguments about mask wearing are considered political discourse with all the inherent problems. People are a little less friendly, a little more tense, and everybody is wondering how soon things can go back to “normal”.

Whatever social distancing means, it’s clearly a very big deal for a lot of people. It’s rather a reversal of the usual order of things. Social distancing isn’t hard for me. It’s my default setting. I do this all the time, naturally, as easy as most people do the opposite. All my life I’ve been the odd duck swimming against the current, standing too far away from people. All my life I’ve been listening to people say ‘you should get out more’, or ‘you should be more sociable’ or some other ‘helpful advice’, but social distancing suits me just fine. It’s ‘normal’ that I struggle with. I have to admit, it’s sort of nice having the shoe on the other foot for once.

It’s a bit petty of me, I admit that, but this is something of a ‘touche society’ moment for me. The tables have temporarily turned and now everybody else gets to experience the pressure to change their natural social inclinations. Am I chuckling a little watching people struggle with this, especially the younger generation? Honestly, yeah, I am. Now the rest of the world gets to try having to be like me instead of the other way round. Quite a refreshing change, even if its only temporary

Now, before you run me through the grinder or accuse me of being flippant or unsympathetic, hear me out. Yes, people are dying. Yes, it’s awful and I’d rather Covid-19 had never happened (or at least stayed contained in China like it should have under a less authoritarian government; see the post a couple entries down). Yes, this is the first time anything like this has happened to several generations of people. Yes, the economic effects are serious and will be felt for months and years to come. I get all of that, but let’s state facts. Covid is serious but it isn’t the black plague. Even if everybody eventually gets it, and we probably will, only a relatively small percentage will die. That’s a tragedy, but so is a hurricane, or a tsunami, or a war. People die unexpectedly from all sorts of accidents but it usually doesn’t put people so out of sorts.

Part of the problem is probably how our government handled the situation, but I think the greater problem is that people really are under a lot more stress. It’s not just the constant bad news and updates on the death toll. People are also being asked to change their behavior. Social distancing takes an effort for most people. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and nobody knows how long it will have to last. Giving up a trip to the local bar may be meaningless for me, but it’s a big part of a lot of people’s social lives, especially young people. You can give it up for a while, yes, but for a year or longer waiting on a vaccine that may or may not ever come. It’s really not surprising. Asking people to give up significant portions of their lives for months and years is asking a lot, especially for a disease that everyone concedes is rarely fatal and often not even felt by younger people. Add to that the fact that all this sacrifice, all the lockdowns, the mandates, the restrictions, etc. isn’t going to keep people from getting the disease forever. It’s only going to slow the spread so our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, kicking the can down the road so the system isn’t flooded with too many hospitalizations at once

Covid-19 isn’t exactly the black plague. It’s not the worst disease to come down the pipe. The fatality rate could be as high as 1%. To give you a comparison, the fatality rate for smallpox was 30%, meningitis is just below 15%, ebola’s fatality rate varies from 25% to as high as 90%. The reason this particular molehill has been made into a mountain comes down to two facts that make covid-19 a problem. Fact 1: the virus is highly infectious, spreading quickly and easily from person to person, even those who don’t develop symptoms. Without shutdowns and social distancing, a lot, maybe most, of the country would have already gotten the disease, so many that a lot of people would have died at home from a lack of medical care, and nobody wants that. Fact 2: our entire healthcare system, from medicine to testing to the manufacture of PPE has been optimized for efficiency and profit but NOT resiliency. The system works well under normal conditions but can fail catastrophically under stress, or put more simply, if too many people get sick at once, there aren’t enough hospitals or doctors or nurses or medicine to go around. The reasons for that state are complicated and will take work to address. Excessive corporate greed, lack of accountability, prioritizing profits over emergency planning, too much globalization and not enough local sourcing, too many people moving too easily across national borders and insufficient means to keep track of them all, failure to stockpile crucial supplies, the list goes on and on. What to do differently next time and how to fix things so a pandemic doesn’t become a civilization level crisis is a longer discussion one our society will have to address eventually, but there’s not much we can do in the short term to change it.

What can we do now? Most of us can’t do much other than social distancing, and even that isn’t going to save every person from covid-19. Whatever choices our leaders have made or will make, they won’t be ideal. You can’t fight a pandemic without casualties and costs any more than you can fight a war and bring every last soldier home. The world doesn’t work that way, and life isn’t fair. No matter what we do, a lot of people are going to die. That’s been inevitable since the first covid passenger got on a flight out of China, but that should not be daunting to us. The fact is that the risk of death is with us every day. To live is to risk death daily. We could die in a car accident, drown swimming in the ocean, or even fall down the stairs, but we still drive to the beach from our multistory homes and/or second floor apartments. We could keel over from a heart attack doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree on what constitutes an ‘acceptable risk’. Some people don’t mind risking getting covid if it means they can continue to work and make money. Some people will empty their savings to stay at home waiting on a vaccine. Nobody has to be right or wrong either. We all have different risk tolerances, and that should be OK.

Perhaps all the sniping is a result of the shared frustrations from all the socializing people can’t be doing. There’s been a lot of controversy about so called ‘covid parties’, and a lot of shaming and finger pointing towards the young people arranging and attending them. Young people, though, like most people, aren’t stupid. They understand risk and they know that they are more likely to die from a number of things besides Covid. They know that, and they want to party, so they do. Their behavior is rational at an individual level, and I, for one, am not going to condemn them over it. Still, there’s a counterargument that the young people get covid and then expose others who are more at risk. That sounds like a reasonable argument but it’s not the end of the argument. A young person might counter by saying, ‘so quarantine grandma. Let her be locked up in her house because she’s ‘at risk’. There are advocates for such an approach. Why should everyone have to sacrifice so much for so few when there are other ways to tackle this problem. Why not identify risk groups and sequester them until a vaccine is found. The cost would arguably be much lower than what we’re doing now, and fewer people would be affected. Either way, whether we sequester our old folks and cancer patients and other at risk groups, or whether we restrict parties and require masks, somebody is being inconvenienced.

It’s not as simple as it seems. Is it better for a few people to make large sacrifices or for everyone to make smaller ones? How do we decide which is better? Do some peoples rights count more than others? Is freedom more important than safety? Is it more important than lives lost? The answer might be different for an affluent business person with a savings of several hundred thousand dollars vs. a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of people believed that freedom, even someone else’s freedom, was worth dying for when the Civil War was fought to end slavery. It’s not a simple issue. We all have different perspectives, and we have to leave room for others to disagree. Kids going to covid parties and people who refuse to wear masks are not evil, bad people. They just have different ideas about what’s an acceptable risk. They balance the scales of freedom and safety differently Does that put others at risk. Yes, it does, but living in a free country means accepting the risks that come from free people exercising their personal rights. Balancing collective issues like public health with individual rights is among the most difficult issues for a free people. Reasonable people can, and should, disagree, but demonizing and finger pointing demeans us all and reduces serious discussion to a shouting match where nobody wins and nothing is ever settled.

It’s been said that one man should not pass judgement upon another until he has walked a mile in the other man’s shoes. This proverb comes from Native American culture, though to be fair, there are other versions from other cultures. It’s one of those little lessons we learn from stories, called aesops by some after the apocryphal Greek purveyor of fables (though parables would be a more accurate term) that told a simple story to illustrate a profound lesson. This one is about empathy, appreciating the feelings of others, understanding that the next man’s experiences are not like my own, that he faces his own problems, his own struggles. It’s also about simple humility, accepting that each of us is only human, and since nobody has all the answers, we should listen to each other instead of reflexively passing judgement on everyone we meet. It took a long time for me to understand that the people who urged me to be more ‘social’ and to be less ‘distant’ were not trying to taunt me or ridicule me or force me to conform to some idea of ‘normal’. Most probably thought something was wrong with me, and knowing how they would feel if they spent as much time alone as I did, they gave me advice they thought would be legitimately helpful. They didn’t understand how different I was, and I possessed neither the confidence or self-awareness to explain. Either way, that realization allowed me to let go of a lot of resentment I had carried around a long time.

I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know what the ‘right’ way to respond to Covid-19 is, or whether there is such a thing as a right way. If there is an optimal path, I doubt we’ll be able to figure it out until years later. The fact is nobody knows the the right response. Nobody has ever gone through this before. We’re facing the unknown, and nothing’s scarier than the unknown. Let’s all be humble enough to realize none of us have all the answers. Let’s give each other space to disagree while we’re socially distancing.

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