Tuesday, April 28, 2020

We Need a Path to Ending Human Distancing

It’s not very often that people across the whole world are consciously thinking about the same thing. Right now that thing is the Coronavirus pandemic - specifically, when will "things go back to normal?” 

The context for most of this discussion is economic. When can we “re-open” the country? When can businesses start making money again? When can employees start earning paychecks? When can we get haircuts, and go out to dinner, and go to the beach? I do at least my fair share of lamenting the fact that I can’t go diving or climbing at all (though seriously, how much more socially isolated can you get than 70 feet or so underwater?) Everyone is waiting for the plans and guidelines to come out around when, where, and how quickly or slowly we can let people go out and do stuff - primarily stuff that involves making or spending money. 

It matters - don’t for a second think that I’m minimizing the economic costs of this pandemic. While I do believe that the fact that they ARE so serious is due almost entirely to conditions of our own making, that doesn’t change the fact that they have a huge impact. The system we as a species have made has wrapped itself around people’s lives in ways they were not given a choice to accept, and cannot choose to escape on their own. Poor, black and brown people are more likely to be exposed to, contract, and die from Covid19 than richer and whiter people, and at the same time are less likely to have access to testing and treatment. Shelter in place orders, while inconveniencing to many of us, are seriously damaging to those who don’t have the ability to work from home and order food deliveries. We’re all learning just exactly how subjective and relative the term “essential” can be.  So yes, the economic angle is hugely important.

Here’s what nobody seems to be thinking about in any practical terms - the non-economic costs of social distancing, and what we can do to ease those. The economic impacts are bad enough - but the long-term emotional and human costs of curtailing simple human contact could easily be as bad or worse. Humans evolved to be social animals - this includes gathering together, sharing space as well as just communication, and yes, touch. An admittedly ethically-questionable but well-known study on some really unfortunate baby monkeys conducted by Harry Harlow and published in 1958 showed that, given the choice between a "wire mother” that supplied them with food but no comfort and a "cloth mother” that they could snuggle and cuddle but provided no nourishment, they chose the cloth mother even to the point of starvation - showing just how important physical touch is to at least this study group of primates. Contact, even if illusory, matters.

I mention this study because right now we are all basically being forced to settle for “wire mother.” The more fortunate of us can functionally communicate and get our material needs met - the essentials of food as well as the less essential comforts of entertainment and even acquisition of more stuff - via digital means. Direct contact is off the table. 
  • A 19-year-old in their first long-term relationship can’t spend time with their romantic partner.
  • Grandparents who are already trying to fit as much attachment into their decreasing stock of remaining years can’t hug their grandkids.
  • Toddlers and young children who actually need physical contact for their fundamental development are habituating to a world where closeness and touch are things to be feared and avoided unless you live in the same house…which often does not even include both parents.
These things will have long-term consequences that have little or nothing to do with the economy. Isolation, anxiety, depression, and stunted emotional maturation and development are not small problems. The emotional and mental health of human beings is often harder to treat than a physical illness. 

We are talking about eroding the reasons we have an economy at all.

While governors, administrators, and doctors are busily figuring out which business relationships can resume when, and under what conditions, they must pay equal attention to giving guidance to people on how, when, and under what circumstances we can start reconnecting with our loved ones in a personal social context. When can family members in different homes visit each other again? When can romantic partners who don’t cohabitate see each other? When can kids play together again? All of us need support in making these decisions as individuals, just as urgently as businesses need guidance in making the decision to open their doors to employees and customers.

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that we do it now - I believe there is just as much danger in rushing into relaxing in this context without clear and scientifically based guidelines. The problem I’m pointing out is that there simply is no guidance on it. Yes this is true across the board - but there is way more visibility and attention being given to resuming business activities than simple social activities. Should the resumption of commingling with strangers and colleagues really come before resuming contact with those we care deeply about? Must we focus on reopening our stores before reopening our homes? Should ability to consume and commute really come before ability to commune?

The economic effects of this pandemic will be deep and far-reaching, and will last a long time. Some things that we used to take for granted and have come to depend on may never return at all. I believe this will also come with some beneficial changes, insofar as some unhealthy consumerist patterns may die in the same dragnet. On the very optimistic end, we may even crush a societal ill or two (not holding my breath, but maybe…?)

We are living through an event that is almost certain to be an inflection point in human history. It could ultimately be on par with a world war, an ice age, or the dark ages. Sometimes these events - dare we to hope - have been followed by periods like the Enlightenment (which by the way came with plenty of unintended consequences of its own). Even if the best of all possible worlds comes about, it’ll hurt for a long time and will involve demolition that demands new creation. If we focus solely on “getting back to work,” we risk losing something far greater - that which makes work worth doing. 

A copy of this has been posted to medium - here's a link to the story there. https://medium.com/@jaeson.paul/we-need-a-path-to-ending-human-distancing-ab12a58f0445?sk=e6bf5ae6eab2738965caddfad59c50ff