Can being apart bring us together? Early signs from the COVID-19 crisis!

Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine – these are among the primary strategies being used to stem the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. While unlikely to stop the spread in its tracks, the strategies are designed to at least “flatten the curve” or rate of transmission in an effort to buy enough time for the health care system to adapt to the harsh realities of the virus. That time will be needed for developing treatment protocols and hopefully, a vaccine.

The logic of these strategies is beyond debate. Clearly, with a virus that is known to spread primarily by respiratory droplets via close human contact, preventing or minimizing human contact makes perfect sense. However, as the warning about the global reach of the pandemic becomes more dire, we are only now beginning to realize the personal challenges and broader societal implications of physical separation.   As it turns out “breaking up really is hard to do”.

The good news is that humans are an adaptive species and it is encouraging to see a multitude of coping strategies emerge for how we can constructively occupy our time apart. We are reminded that, equipped with electronic devices and social media, people can remain socially active while being physically separated. Indeed, many teleworkers or home office consultants may be tempted to wonder what all the fuss is about.   Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the need for physical distancing or its impact should it be required for a prolonged period of time.  When fully 80% of the economy relies on service workers physically interacting with others on a regular basis, it takes little imagination to foresee the potential for an economic disaster.

There is no shortage of apocalyptic scenarios that might fuel a pessimist’s view of what the future has in store – scenarios well known to anyone familiar with the Walking Dead, World War Z or Mad Max where the prevailing ethos is survival of the fittest, trust no one and arm yourself to the teeth!  However, aside from the hoarding of toilet rolls, it is safe to say that early signs from the current COVID-19 crisis are proving to be quite encouraging.

People do seem to be coming together, finding creative ways to connect with each other virtually and reaching out to offer support to family and friends.  Business and commercial efforts are shifting their focus towards maintaining supply chains for essential goods and services such as food, health care supplies and medicines. Such efforts are mitigating anxieties over caring for basic needs. Governments, often at odds over jurisdictional issues or paralyzed by partisan bickering, have stepped up to the plate with programs designed to assist individuals and businesses most affected. Here in Canada, our federal-provincial-territorial and community leaders are showing that, despite their separate jurisdictions over health care, they can put aside their differences and come together to provide a coordinated response. We have also benefitted from solid leadership from our public officials and the heroic efforts of front-line workers who put their own health at risk for the benefit of others. They have performed admirably amid very difficult and rapidly changing circumstances.

So, can being apart bring us together? Paradoxically, the answer would seem to be yes! Indeed, physical separation has become an act of collective will against an existential threat that makes no distinction between ethnicity, class or nationality. COVID-19 has been called a great equalizer; in its destructive capacity, it reminds that we are all in this together, even if for a while, we must remain apart.

John Gelder