social distancing, isolation, common good

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The Struggle of Social Distancing Is About More Than Inconvenience

We face an unnatural situation, one in which loving our neighbors means leaving them alone.

At least one part of our virus-riddled moment, which presents a literal world of complication, you’d think would be simple. But it’s not.

The coronavirus and its accompanying disease, COVID-19, grips most of the world and every inch of the United States right now. Where, and whom, the virus doesn’t reach physically, it covers in speculation and fear. And while the spread slows in China, with peeks of hope for an end, Europe faces worse effects than the virus’s native land. After a lumbering start in the U.S., the physical and social — and civic and medical — impact of the coronavirus seems to escalate every hour.

The most socially disruptive development of the crisis relates not to the sick, but to the healthy. Social distancing, a weird but ubiquitous term for “stay away from other people,” represents the new norm of the COVID-19 world.

The implications most directly affect gatherings of people. During the past week or so, officials at various levels of government recommended a cascade of advice about when and how we should gather. At first, they wanted us to avoid groups of 250 people or more. Then 50. Now 10. Whether you’re sick or not, in a highly infected area or not, these recommendations have all-but certainly turned your 2020 upside down. Postponed, if not canceled altogether, are weddings, funerals, baby showers, church services, conferences, vacations, dinner parties. Schools closed. Colleges emptied out residence halls. The most powerful and lucrative industry in our culture, sports entertainment, all but shut down. All for the purpose of social distancing.

For about a quarter of Americans, though, gathering size is irrelevant. Orders to shelter in place, an aggressive kind of staying put, keep millions of people on both coasts inside their homes.

The logic of these recommendations seems clear. If people who are sick stay home, then they can’t spread the virus. If people who are healthy stay home, the virus can’t spread to them. And if the virus can’t spread, then it can’t spread. Simple, right? Yet social distancing appears far more problematic to actualize.

Beaches are full. It took acts of governments to get people out of bars and restaurants. Some people say the largest generation isn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough. And, I’m just guessing at this one, people on social media have opinions about what governmental recommendations do and don’t mean.

The problems with social distancing are myriad. We Americans are a cowboy people, independent, with a bone-deep aversion to being told what to do. Marketers will tell you it’s always difficult to get people to take action in the interest of others, which is why you mainly see marketing aimed not at a greater-good sentiment but at outcomes for individual consumers. More tangibly, and far weightier than spring break, some people suffer intense economic fallout because of social distancing. Certain industries that predicate on people gathering and interacting face a necessary reduction in the workforce. Experts predict a $1 trillion global economic loss, the ripples of which will reach millions. Some even wonder, in hushed tones, if the effects of social distancing could be worse than the alternative.

Some don’t have an option to take shelter the way many of us can — like janitorial workers and people who are homeless — and they face direct vulnerability because of it. We shouldn’t equivocate skipping the Midtown happy hour with their kind of suffering.

You can read a lot written about Americans’ tendency toward isolation. Online culture, they say, causes people to undervalue personal, physical connections. Digital connection supposedly represents the connection du jour. You might expect that people stuck staring at a three-inch screen with their ears plugged would find social distancing and sheltering-in-place the easiest requirement of this pandemic. Beyond that, if your impulsion is self-preservation and survival of the fittest, then it would seem natural.

But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? Alongside beachgoers and dine-in vigilantes, millions of people are generally complying with the distancing recommendations. And finding it equally difficult not to do, per se, but difficult to endure. Because something much deeper is going on.

We humans belong together. This grows from the heart of Christianity — love your God and love your neighbor; right after God himself comes community — and highlights the reality for all of God’s creatures. The three-person God of the Bible exists in community, and part of what it means for us to be his image is to exist in community, too. Marriage. Family. Church. Society. And what social distancing recommendations show us, not with words but with bone-deep feelings, is the resonance of this truth. The instinct that, even in the most dramatic circumstances, isolation from others isn’t natural.

One of the things we feel right now is the reality of what we’ve probably sensed for a long time: The digital world is a poor substitute for the real. And all the world’s blue-lit screens — streaming movies, staff meetings, or sermons — can’t mask the way God created our world. This is the same reason why the cancellations of things like sporting events rattle us more than other inconveniences. Not because people just really like college basketball, but because things like March Madness are part of nation-wide experiences, some our last-remaining shared texts. And this is the same reason why we Christians all sense that our churches can pivot to digital services but it can’t viably substitute sitting in a pew next to someone. Being together — and laughing and hugging and arguing and eating and hurting — isn’t something we do. It’s who we are.

We face an unnatural situation, one in which loving our neighbors means leaving them alone. Simple, but not easy. Because it tears at what it means to be human — and reminds us of a day when we’ll be whole again. Not as individuals, but together.

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