The perils of extreme social distancing



Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P. Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P.

Consider this scene in a supermarket: a woman collapses on the floor, weakly asking for help, but shoppers merely walk past her as they race to buy their needed commodities. A man attempts to help the woman but his wife says: “Don’t touch her.  Social distancing!”

A man goes home after a day’s work. His wife excitedly welcomes him but he quickly extends his arms to block her approach and shouts: “No kiss, touch, or hug. Social distancing.”

Social distancing is a public health strategy that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people (and vice versa), thereby reducing the transmission of COVID-19. Health experts say this is an effective way of "flattening the curve" or stopping the surges in the number of those contaminated.

Sadly, many people today bring social distancing to the extreme, equating it with self-quarantine or isolation from others. Quarantine applies to those who are suspected of having contracted the disease, regardless of whether they are symptomatic or not. Those who are already sick of the disease are isolated to prevent them from infecting others. Both quarantine and isolation involve confining a person to a specific place.

However, social distancing does not necessarily involve such locational constraints. Equating it with quarantine or isolation cultivates irrational fear among people, forcing them to stay at home all the time or avoid all forms of social contact even if they are healthy.

“Better safe than sorry,” most people say. But in thinking this way, we also risk becoming ruthlessly indifferent towards those in need. Notice how some politicians and celebrities have themselves tested even if they have no symptoms, unmindful of the fact that we have a shortage of testing kits.

All of us want to live our lives as normally as possible. So, if a person is healthy, he need not force himself to seclusion because of fear of contamination.What is required of him is to socialize in a way that reduces the likelihood of transmission of the virus, like practicing a consistent hygiene routine and observing health safeguards.

Calamities, disasters, and other crises bring out in us empathy for others, urging us to get out of our way to help them. COVID-19 does the same, but paradoxically, we are asked to express our concern by isolating ourselves from others and avoid, as much as possible, close social contacts.

Now that we have a lot of time to stay at home, family togetherness can be fostered. But extreme social distancing can be an obstacle to this. Family members may just stay in their rooms, or spend their time in social networking, home movies, and video games. In many homes, the radio and television are never turned off. Young people used to find pleasure in real conversation with their parents and siblings, now they get pleasure in surfing the internet or browsing through Facebook posts and messages.

Staying at home can be an opportunity for every family to rediscover the value of common prayer. The family that prays together stays together. Prayer helps us maintain our closeness with God whom we keep at arm’s length because we feel we don’t need Him.

I read a story about a woman who was asked on TV, after the September 11 bombing in New York: “Why did God allow this to happen?" She replied: “I believe God is deeply saddened by this. But for the past years, we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government, and to get out of our lives. Being the gentleman that He is, I believe He has decided to back out. How can we expect God to protect us if we want Him to leave us alone?"

Too much distance can lead to alienation. We alienate God when we feel too self-sufficient. We alienate others when we disregard their presence because of selfishness, masquerading as extreme social distancing.