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Thoughts on Social Distancing

What a month.

We are all under the illusion – especially in the West – that we have some control over our lives. COVID-19 has reminded us to the contrary. It is humbling. We can’t see into the future, but what we can see does not look good.

We are asked to stay home, to practice social distancing, to halt commerce and tank the economy. All to prevent something that seems (until recently at least) distant and contingent. We are learning that the only way to prevent the spread of this virus is to act preemptively, before it has attacked. This goes against our instinct as humans. Social distancing has reminded us that we are social animals, that we crave human contact. Conference calls and video conferencing are a poor substitute.

For those of us who can work from home, who have savings, who have health insurance, so far things are manageable. For those of us who have lost or will soon lose our jobs, the future is terrifying. We have little precedent to rely on – the Spanish flu epidemic, the Great Depression, the Plague.

We have seen how China and South Korea seem to have succeeded in slowing rates of infection by extreme isolation measures. It may be that Western countries, not used to authoritarian governance and more jealous of our freedoms, will have trouble following their example. Witness the recent photos of beaches filled with party-goers, bars filled with patrons. Particularly in the US, we appear to be continuing our politically divided dialogue by pointing fingers, blaming others for this tragedy, and assuming it won’t happen to us. Our distributed systems of health care and governance also hinder decisive action.

But social isolation can also lead to social solidarity. The entire world is experiencing this virus, practicing social isolation, dealing with their vulnerabilities. Now is not the time to blame. Now is the time to actively commit to the common good, to look after each other, to take care of those least able to withstand the onslaught. Health care workers in particular exhibit solidarity by risking their own health, staying on their feet amid terror and fatigue. We must do all we can to support them.

David Brooks wrote: “It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.” Brooks hopes that, when we come out on the other side, “there will be an enduring shift in consciousness,” that we will look back on the political and social divisions that have infected our culture and wonder why we could not have seen our common humanity.

We must also share our resources and care for those of us most vulnerable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together: “Not until one person desires to keep his own bread for himself does hunger ensue. This is a strange divine law.”

This Prayer for a Pandemic is from Dr. Cameron Wiggins Bellm:

May we who are merely inconvenienced

Remember those whose lives are at stake.

May we who have no risk factors

Remember those most vulnerable.

May we who have the luxury of working from home

Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.

May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close

Remember those who have no options.

May we who have had to cancel our trips

Remember those that have no safe place to go.

May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market

Remember those who have no margin at all.

May we who settle in for a quarantine at home

Remember those who have no home.

As fear grips our country,

Let us choose love.

During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,

Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.


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