Social Distancing and the Instinct for Closeness

Apologies for my recent absence (though those of you who’ve been with me a while know it’s nothing new); I started back at work full-time about two weeks ago, and between evening shifts and busywork, I’ve really just wanted to come home and sleep after every day. Even my days off (like today) are typically spent dozing, so writing is simply taking something of a back seat at the moment.

That being said, being back at work has revealed some interesting things out of both observation and participation. I work in retail/technical support, which means I am mostly customer-facing and supporting people as they visit our store on a daily basis. And whilst we have reasonably strict protocols for regulating customer traffic, it isn’t working as well as I had perhaps initially hoped, for several reasons.

Masks are, of course, mandatory where I work for both employees and customers; if you don’t have one we’ll give you one, and if you refuse you aren’t getting in. But this immediately presents its own issues in a noisy, busy retail environment: it becomes really difficult to hear and understand people. And whilst we have training to help us learn to speak louder and with more clarity, soft-spoken customers do not. This means that I’m constantly fighting an instinct to lean in to better hear what my customer might be saying.

The instinct to lean in to hear isn’t the only one I battle at work, either; in a normal environment I would work side-by-side with my customers, helping them navigate their devices to troubleshoot and resolve whatever problems they might be having. Now, I have to deliberately put a significant distance between myself and my customer in order to maintain a safe working environment, which means it’s a lot harder to see what the customer might be doing, to help them learn how to do something specific, or to replicate technical issues without the customer’s involvement.

I see the same issue with my customers, too, only they typically aren’t as self-aware. They approach me, reach out hands to shake, or think that it’s perfectly okay to step up to within arm’s reach to talk (all things that, pre-COVID, were of course totally acceptable). And it’s a battle to constantly remind them, as well as myself, that in the current environment, this simply isn’t safe.

But the instinct for closeness goes beyond what I experience in my day-to-day at work. It extends to every part of human nature and interaction, which is why, I suspect, it’s so difficult to manage. As humans, we naturally want to be with other humans, to communicate, see their faces and their smiles and their frowns, and social distancing makes this incredibly difficult. We had a small, outdoor party the other weekend with just a few people over, and even then we were all struggling to remember to keep our masks on, or keep our distance. It doesn’t feel natural.

And this is clearly visible across the country, and across the world. Everyone desperately wants to go back to a way of life where we don’t have to worry about these things, and unfortunately, a lot of people are under the false belief that by acting as if everything’s normal, it somehow will be.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth. The United States, where I live, is currently one of the worst-afflicted countries in the world, and sadly I think it’s because there’s a notion in this country that one’s own personal beliefs and desires are paramount above anything – or anyone – else. From protests to acts of defiance to political figures – people in elevated positions of power and influence – outright refusing to acknowledge the dangers of not social distancing, this country is in rough shape because people cannot – or will not – overcome their instinct for social closeness.

We have to fight this instinct. We have to resist the urge to shake hands, to hug, to simply be around others, because every time we do, we are putting ourselves and everyone else in danger. And as we’ve clearly seen, it isn’t just a danger of getting the flu – there is a very real danger of death, and by all accounts an exceptionally unpleasant one.

So please, take an extra moment with every decision you make to ask yourself: do I need to do this, or do I want to? Will this action I’m about to take put me in closer contact with another human being than I need to be? And most of all, is there any chance that the person I’m about to interact with may be at risk of dying from an illness I may not even know I have?

Social distancing, and every other precaution we must take during this pandemic, is not a thing to be taken lightly. This is incredibly serious, and so far there seems to be no end in sight. Things won’t get better by themselves, and they won’t get better by pretending things are normal. And if you can’t bring yourself to care about other people, then at the very least consider your own health: is that party at the beach really worth dying for?

One out of every hundred people in the United States has already tested positive for COVID-19, and there are likely many, many more cases that go unreported. You know more than 100 people – I guarantee it. Which of those people are you willing to see die just so you can have some notion of personal freedom that isn’t even being taken away?

Please, think about these things … and do the right thing.

Thoughts on COVID-19

There’s pretty much only one thing on people’s minds these days. I’ve seen anxiety, panic, hysteria, ignorance, apathy and dismissiveness around COVID-19, but there’s no denying that it’s here, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. (Indeed, it is already being addressed by most governments and businesses around the world.)

In a not-so-funny way, the overwhelming presence of COVID-19 is like a mental illness: a shadow across the mind that can’t be ignored, a thought that presents itself constantly before all others. Every thing you do, every action you take, you can’t help but wonder if you’re furthering your exposure to the virus.

I saw a co-worker go home sick yesterday. Just before he left, he mentioned to a fellow team member – whether in jest or not, I don’t know – that he thought he might have coronavirus. In my mind, that was an unacceptably irresponsible thing to do. Not because people shouldn’t know if he did, but because the way he presented the information – to a peer, in casual reference, and not to a manager or leader – led to a rapid spread of anxiety and panic throughout the entire team.

One of the things I’ve seen over the past few days is that in times of uncertainty, duress, and unprecedented fear, people want to be told what to do. They need reassurance. They need a strong, unwavering and certain leader who sets the record straight, tells the truth that people need to hear, and confronts the feelings of panic and hysteria that are brewing in people’s minds. I saw this at work when no leader was there to tell people how to react to a co-worker potentially having the virus; and I see it in the egregious panic-buying that is going on across the United States at virtually every supermarket in the country.

This level of conscientious command is missing entirely from the United States’ leadership currently. Within the past two weeks, the president has noted that the coronavirus will disappear “like a miracle”, that things were “getting much better in Italy”, and more or less downplayed any effect the virus will have on the US and its economy. Instead of actually leading, it feels more like panic and ignorance from the one person who, in theory, ought to be able to bring things together.

But at the same time, perhaps this isn’t quite such a bad thing; after all, mass hysteria and panic can be what allows democracies to turn into dictatorships. Capitalizing on people’s fear – justified or not – is an easy path to rationalize unchecked executive actions, and in times like this it becomes easier to abuse the power given to those in positions of high authority. So far all I’ve seen from the leadership of the country has been denial and scientific ignorance, which under the circumstances is probably about all that could have been expected.

What the spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated, however, is that the world at large is woefully unprepared to handle the proliferation of such an infectious and easily-communicable disease, and that perhaps it never can be. The world is incredibly fortunate that COVID-19 is not more fatal than it is, although current estimates might nonetheless be too low; were a disease as fatal as, say, ebola to become as transmissible as COVID-19, the world would be in a dire state. Even so, to contain the spread of a disease like this would mean shutting down all physical communication between states and countries, and in a global economy this could put many countries at risk of starvation as their imports dwindle, and poverty as their exports cease.

As the disease progresses, however, one thing that’s come to light is that there are very few places that have yet to suffer, and in this regard there is perhaps a chance for many of the world’s countries to unite in combatting this contagion. If out of hardship some positivity could be derived, then we should look to that light, rather than focus on the devastation left behind.

Or, like what seems to be happening in the United States, we could could become isolationist and leave the rest of the world to suffer in solitude. And in doing so, I think far more people will die.

From a global scale to a single individual, the spread of COVID-19 is a frightening prospect, and how we handle it as people will determine how we handle it as a society. If there is no leadership to be found from the government, then we’ll need to rely on our own resources: read scientific publications, seek out original research, take the precautions recommended by the World Health Organization and the CDC, and most of all, look after your own mental health. Don’t allow fear to drive you, but don’t ignore your own anxieties either; information is your best weapon.