When social distancing was first suggested to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, several friends joked how great it is to have public-health experts affirm their antisocial tendencies.
We now have a legitimate medical excuse to avoid playdates, parties and large crowds!
Even for the socially challenged among us, canceling public events, restricting travel and moving college classes online seem extreme, but other nations’ experiences prove that limiting social contact can be effective, especially early on.
According to recent analysis of the coronavirus pandemic, a “25 percent reduction in contacts yields more than a 50 percent drop in cases after one month.”
In a word, that is huge.
If we can “flatten the curve” or slow the incidence of infection, especially serious cases, we are less likely to overtax our healthcare system, which should lower the mortality rate from the illness, as well.
All of this is good, and we should do it, full stop. But we have to be aware of the cost of isolation — and I’m not talking about the economic impact, the pricey stimulus packages or the plunging stock market.
I’m talking about the damage that occurs when communities disintegrate.
Americans already are a uniquely isolated people.Twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam blamed that on technology and its atomizing effects on society in his seminal book, “Bowling Alone.” In the ensuing years, social media, video games and streaming services have made everything much worse.
People are spending increasingly less time interacting with neighbors and friends and engaging in their communities, and more and more time alone. That’s had a devastating impact on our social institutions. It’s also been deeply detrimental to our personal and public health. Lonelier people get sicker, stay sicker and die sooner.
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Still, you’d think that our cultural penchant for reclusiveness would serve us well in acute situations, like the current pandemic. As it relates to our personal desire to sit at home with a book instead of attending a concert — yes.
But it ultimately means that in times of crisis, when communities should be coming together to serve the common good and our mutual survival, we are finding ourselves alone.
We don’t trust the institutions that govern us, the ones we rely on for support and we see each other as competitors in a zero-sum game. That is even more destructive than a virus.
Two short weeks ago, a friend commented that if a family in our circle found themselves ill or short on supplies, the rest of us would happily pitch in to help, even if that meant sacrificing for our own families. (Yes, even toilet paper.) “We have a village,” she said.
But not everybody does. Yes, it’s hard to build community when you’re self-quarantining. It’s certainly not the ideal time to get involved in your church or start volunteering at the local food bank. But it is definitely time to turn our attentions to those around us.
That means checking in on relatives and friends. Making sure our neighbors, especially those in vulnerable populations, have what they need. That might mean sharing or rationing our own supplies or finding ways to support healthcare workers. We might seek ways to support families without childcare.
Those of us able to use the extra time with our kids should do it profitably — less TV, more books and games.
None of this will be easy, and it will require some creativity. But it can be done.
We will ride this out. And it will be a lot easier to rebuild our communities if we never abandon them in the first place.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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