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Michael Rozier, S.J.March 17, 2020
Union Station's nearly deserted Main Hall in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 16. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)Union Station's nearly deserted Main Hall in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 16. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As we live through the once-theoretical scenarios of a pandemic, we are realizing that social distancing and quarantine are essential for avoiding worst-case scenarios. They do not eliminate the risk of infection from the coronavirus, but they reduce their likelihood and spread the infections over a longer period of time. Social distancing is also highlighting the importance of social connection and what happens when this part of who we are is taken away.

“Taken away” might not be the right way of phrasing it. That connotes that we lack agency in whatever is happening to us. Instead, we might ask what happens when some of our usual social connections are given away. By this, I mean when we freely decide that there is some greater good that we hope to achieve and it is by changing how we live together that we are best able to achieve it. It is similar to how a married couple does not have their freedom to date other people taken away; they freely give that freedom for the sake of something greater. As someone who loves college basketball, initially March Madness felt taken away, but with a little bit of distance (pun intended) we might gain the freedom to actually give such things away.

Social distancing is highlighting the importance of social connection and what happens when this part of who we are is taken away.

Nevertheless, there are great risks in giving away the practices with which we typically find community and companionship. We must not allow this virus to rob us of our humanity.

So how can we achieve social distance without experiencing social isolation? How can we behave with an appropriate amount of caution without falling into fear? How do we respect the virus without giving it too much power?

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Part of the answer is in ensuring that as we temporarily place greater physical distance between ourselves, we consider creative ways to replace that physical contact. For every hug or handshake we forgo, we might offer some words of love and affirmation. For every visit we are unable to make, we could place an extra phone call or video call. For every bar, restaurant or concert we avoid, we could take that time to join an online book club, plan a garden or send something good into the world via Facebook or Twitter. Another strategy is to identify one or two others as your exclusive social outlets. If each person in those small social circles adhere to a promise that they are each other’s exclusive social companions during this time, it can achieve great good with little additional risk.

There are great risks in giving away the practices with which we typically find community and companionship. We must not allow this virus to rob us of our humanity.

Even more fundamental than these practical strategies is how we choose to view the other person during this time. This is admittedly difficult when dealing with an infectious disease because the other person is a potential threat. Yet we can choose whether we see that person first as a threat or first as someone else who is vulnerable to the same disease that we are. Is our lens difference and competition, or is it shared identity and solidarity? We cannot let the idea of others as a threat become their fundamental identity. Doing so not only tears at their humanity; it also tears at ours.

Why we must practice physical distance

The strategies of social distancing and quarantine make it more likely that our health care system can handle high acuity cases, which require some of our limited resources, including clinicians, hospital beds and medical equipment. It is the difference between driving by a stadium during a typical weekday and trying to drive past it when a big event is letting out. We want our hospitals to feel like a city street with high activity but that is still moving people through rather than a traffic jam where almost any progress is impossible. Social distancing makes that feasible.

Social distancing also has some very real costs. When schools close, many children go without their only meals for the day. When the gig economy and service industry slow down, many workers and families already living on the edge are even more vulnerable. This pandemic is revealing some major holes in our social safety net and loopholes in our social contract, which we have known about but that have not received our full attention.

This pandemic is revealing some major holes in our social safety net and loopholes in our social contract.

Another frustrating element of this particular pandemic is the inadequate amount of information we have about its spread due to the lack of rigorous testing and data sharing in the United States. I do not state this as a partisan jab. Again, my concern is that the lack of information exacerbates the risk of viewing the other person as a threat. We can best exercise prudence, a key virtue in the life of faith, if we have information about the thing we are asked to judge. When we must make major decisions about how to live without information that comes from widespread testing and clear communication, we tend to err on extremes—either ignoring reasonable precautions or generating hysteria. Both of these can largely be avoided if we have the information we need to make prudential judgments. For now and for the indefinite future, social distancing is necessary for the greater good.

Returning to compassion

Ultimately, we belong to each other—even, and perhaps especially, during a pandemic such as this. Many in our society are particularly vulnerable during times of social distancing: those in nursing homes, who are immunocompromised and who are incarcerated. We must ensure that these and other groups are not further isolated due to this disease. For those concerned that sacraments and other activities of our faith life have been temporarily curtailed, perhaps we should give ourselves over to this significant spiritual task.

In public health, we often use some variation of “before, everything you do for a disaster seems alarmist, and after everything seems inadequate.” That is the nature of the work. As we consider both the practical and existential dimensions of this pandemic we might consider what came before it.

How have we allowed ourselves to be distanced from each other even before this disease? Why have we let the narrative of competition become such a presumed part of our society?

We must also consider what comes after the virus is under control. How can what we do in the coming weeks bring us closer together and more compassionate for those on society’s margins? How might we increase our belonging to each other whether or not we are faced with a pandemic?

These are not theoretical questions. They have always been there, but we can see them more clearly at the moment. The virus is simply doing what viruses do. It is time for us to do what we do. That is, to be more human than before, trusting that in so doing we are better prepared for this threat and any others that will one day come.

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