I am hyper-social. I am social distancing.

pablo-garcia-saldana-EqRnmhc50g0-unsplash

Last May I had an extended business trip that took me to the West Coast for twelve days (Los Angeles, then San Francisco, then Anchorage, then Seattle). While on business, I did what I always do: I looked up my friends in each city, individually texted them, and then scheduled every hour of free time as meals and visits to catch up.  I shaved two or so hours off of my sleep schedule each day so I could pack in catching up with more friends.

I love people.  One of my most persistent complaints is that there is not enough time in life to be best friends with everyone I think is amazing.

For my own curiosity on my flight back to D.C., I counted the number of friends I had “meaningfully” interacted with in that twelve day period. I defined “meaningful” as “engaged in conversation for at least one hour while hanging out in a group of four or fewer.”  The answer was forty-seven.

Notable among that forty-seven is who I didn’t count.  The hundred people I gave hugs to while visiting my old ward in the Bay Area didn’t count. The three dozen colleagues/opponents I interacted with in meetings and depositions didn’t count.  The passengers on my flights, trains, and buses didn’t count.  The servers and fellow customers at restaurants didn’t count.  The temple workers at the Saturday morning session I attended in Seattle didn’t count, nor did the woman who I hitchhiked a car ride with up to the lodge atop Mount Rainier.

If you changed my metric from the 47 friends I “hung out with for an hour” to “everyone I touched, shook hands with, hugged, or breathed within six feet of” during that twelve day stretch, it’s easily 500 people.  If you extend my breathing radius to anyone in the same enclosed spaces, its easily more than 2000.

I’m a woman in my early 30s.  I’m healthy.  I tend to shrug off and work through common colds.  I’m religious.  And I’m extremely social.  In other words, my life looks like Korean COVID-19 patient #31.

Prior to this woman, every case in Korea could be traced to a cluster of people who had returned from Wuhan, China and their immediate family.  But this woman, first in the days before she showed symptoms and then in the days after when her symptoms were mild, attended church and ate at restaurant buffets.  She interacted with more than 1200 people.  Those interactions quickly ballooned into more than 2500 confirmed cases stemming from her social network alone.  Approximately half of all coronavirus cases in Korea trace to her social life as a proximate cause of the spread.

The only way the world is going to beat this terrifying virus is if people like me stay home.

The Washington Post has an incredible interactive graphic modeling this power of social distancing today.  Social distancing is more effective than mandatory travel bans and geographic quarantines.  Fewer total people will get sick, and those who do get sick will be spread across a greater length of time.  It gives our health care systems a fighting chance.

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As recently as a week ago, my reaction to COVID-19 was to avoid older people, and urge older relatives not to travel, but not to change my patterns at all.  I still went to church.  I still rode the metro to work.  I was still planning on flying to California for a business trip.  I had still set up a pi day party for D.C. friends and an Indian food girls nights for S.F. friends.   I was supposed to board a plane for that trip an hour ago.

But then last week I read a blog post from an emergency room doctor in Milan.  (I don’t remember the exact one, but it was similar to this one.)  Next I read an engineer post reminding everyone of exactly what exponential growth mathematically looks like.  Then I started hearing reports from medical professionals in the United States that we have been so atrociously terrible at testing that the virus is –already– everywhere.  There has likely already been a week of exponential, asymptomatic community spread in every major urban area, and those cases are going to explode into public health crises within days.

When I woke up on Thursday with a tickle in my throat almost certainly attributable to cherry blossoms blooming and allergy season beginning, I realized I had already been acting like Korean Patient 31.  That day, I went to my office, packed up my work binders, and decided to work from home for the foreseeable future.

I resolved to skip both Latter-day Saint and Catholic services, and felt guilty about it — until twelve hours later when both churches cancelled services of their own accord.

I cancelled my pi day party.

I cancelled my business trip to California.

I cancelled the next four trips I had planned to four separate states through May 1.

And then I watched as people in my social network decided to not take this seriously.  They’re claiming coronavirus is a hoax, an overreaction, a political attack, a sign of the times.  (World Health Org myth busting info is here.)  They’re booking cheap travel and pointedly shaking hands as a way to “own the Libs.”  So this is my plea to all of you:  health is not political.  Please take this seriously.  Maybe you’re like me and you and your friends are generally young and healthy.  To you, COVID-19 will be nothing more than a bad cold.  But this isn’t about you.  It’s about the immuno-compromised and elderly who you interact with.  It’s about the total resources of our medical system.  It’s about buying time.

We all need to start socially isolating in order to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed.

There is something so pernicious about infectious diseases which capitalize on humanity’s compassion.  Part of me feels selfish and guilty for isolating myself in my comfy house with wifi and Netflix.  Isolation goes against my every social instinct.  It goes against every scriptural passage and general conference story which emphasizes building close-knit communities and being physically present in caring for other members of the body of Christ.  Physical presence, right now, can accidentally kill.  So I’m trying to channel my social fervor into calls, texts, and small acts of remote financial assistance.

I take some meager comfort in knowing this is not the first time humanity has faced this theological crisis, where isolation is a purer act of neighborly love than visiting the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the widows in their affliction.  Throughout the European plagues of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, theologians struggled with the same questions.  From one early modern sermon:

“I leave the proving of the Plagues infection to the Physician; he will tell you … that it is spreading, and so spreading, that where it once breaks forth, a man cannot be too careful, because he can never be too secure, if secure enough. For to say that the Plague befalls none but such as want faith to rely upon and trust in the Providence of God is an error more bloody than to say that it is not infectious.”

It is error, my friends, to think you are unaffected — and thereby affect others.  Please, listen to the public health experts.  If you won’t listen to the public health experts, listen to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listening to the public health experts.  Start social distancing, now, and don’t laugh COVID-19 off as a joke or hoax.

For everyone in critical medical service and food service industries, I’m praying for your health and grateful for your heroism.  For everyone who is immuno-compromised or elderly, I’m praying for enough social isolation to spare you from sickness and premature death.  For everyone already ill, I’m praying for effective treatments and speedy recoveries.  For everyone who is financially unstable, I’m praying for compassionate leaders and neighbors to ensure your stability as we careen into a recession.  For everyone who has tumultuous home lives, I’m praying for peace during this time of turmoil.  For everyone who is healthy, including for myself, I’m praying for the humility to listen to public health experts and understand how hyper-sociality can have ripple effects which devastate your communities and wreak havoc on the world.

Stay safe, my friends.

*Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Love you, Carolyn. As someone who is immunocompromised and has been self-isolating for days already, it’s so frightening to see people going about their lives and encouraging trips and social gatherings. Maybe they’ll be fine. But we have immediate and pressing examples of where that path leads, and it’s nowhere good.

    Thank you for taking care. (I wanted to go to your party, too)

  2. Marrissa says:

    Great summary, thank you! I feel marginally less despondent about the wave about to break on us every time I see one more person say they will actually do social distancing.

  3. Thank you for your beautiful post. We all need to be social distancing. I consider this to be covered in Love thy neighbor as thyself. We need to love and protect each other as we love and protect ourselves. I’m

  4. Susan Garver says:

    Thank you! I’m just about done with all the takes along the lines of “I never leave home and this is great lol”. Have some compassion for those individuals and cultures where this isn’t normal. I was on medical leave for 6 weeks in the fall. As a very social, adventurous person, being stuck at home alone all day wreaked havoc on my mental health. I will still gladly isolate to protect vulnerable populations but I am not looking forward to the coming weeks.

  5. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Carolyn. As a person who thinks about advocacy, have you discovered any “best practices” for convincing the reluctant to take this seriously? Reasoning, pleading, and praying with my parents (both elderly and conservative) has barely moved the needle.

  6. Thank you for your conscientious changes. By contrast, I spend eight hours a day in my home office, and leave the house to cycle, gym, or get groceries… where I inevitably use the self-checkout. I don’t think I’ll go to the gym this week, but my wife’s grandfather passed (NOT the virus) and it seems we are compelled to attend the funeral. My suggestion has been, have a burial now and a public memorial service later, but….

  7. Two questions about proper attitude with current events.
    1. When doing visits with my Ministering companion (and some online comments), there was a palpable amount of smugness from members who have lots of toilet paper stockpiled. It’s as if they’ve been going to grocery stores, just to look at people looking at the empty shelves and feeling smug. I’ve get that they’ve done the right things (been prepared), but how does one not feel smug?
    2. My spouse and I have a differing opinion on sympathy and concern for Trump rally attendees. One of us feels that they should keep happening, and hopefully the rallies will become vectors for spreading Covid-19 amongst those who think it’s a hoax, while the other one believes it is a bad temptation to wish for that. Which one do you believe is correct?

  8. Do not make jokes about people dying from this, or wish people will die from this, or express any form of any sentiment that people you dislike deserve what they get by dying from this. It’s not funny.

  9. I feel like I have been training my whole life for self-distancing. My time has come. The only people I willingly and purposefully get closer than 3 feet to live in my house. I don’t want to shake hands with people or be pulled into a hug by people (no one understands boundaries) This idea of avoiding touching people is an answer to my prayers. People who don’t mind personal touch don’t realize just how much they do it. I’d like to think this might cause a sift in social behavior, but probably not.
    I’ve seen lots of people on social media complain about the measures being enacted, and even for a hermit-ed introvert like me they seem draconian. But I believe the science. If it works, we’ll never know it worked, but if fails, if we ignore the pleas, we’ll know precisely how it failed. And it will be tragic.

  10. nobody, really says:

    jader3rd:

    Your second point looks a lot like it came right out of Alma 31.
    “…We believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren, and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers, but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children…”

    Is this about right, or is your attitude more along the lines of “They aren’t even technically human beings, so we don’t feel any worse about *them* dying than taking an antibiotic to kill off an infection”? I’m genuinely curious.

  11. nobody, really,
    It’s not that they aren’t human beings, it’s more that if you vote for politicians who promise to dismantle or knee cap institutions which were created to assist you or your fellow citizens, it doesn’t seem unfair if you find yourself in need of what that institution used to be able to do for everyone. It’s not that hopefully they’d die off, it’s more that hopefully it would be a wake up call for the group. If they find themselves hospitalized over what they thought was a hoax, I hope they would evaluate their choice of leaders or media figures who convinced them it was a hoax, realize they have been conned, and start expanding their worldview.

  12. nobody, really says:

    jader3rd:

    Thanks for the clarification. Looks like more of an Alma 31 situation, then. “Those people have been led astray, or have chosen to go astray, so they deserve whatever they get.”

  13. >Is it bad to hope people with whom I have political disagreements get sick and die?

    I hope it’s worse than hoping people who wish ill on others over political disagreements get sick and die.

  14. Outstanding post, Carolyn. Thanks for making such a clear and impassioned case for social distancing. I hope it helps us all!

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