We really need to take social distancing seriously

Starting at midnight last night, the ‘shelter in place’ order has been extended to Monterey county where I live due to two cases of Covid-19 being detected here. Since I have been voluntarily doing it already, this will not cause any change for me but it is going to be disruptive and costly for workers who lose their jobs and wages, parents with young children, businesses, and a whole host of others for whom the impact is not yet clear.

As I wrote before, there is something strange about this crisis because even though it is serious on a large scale, for most people things in their immediate surroundings seem so normal. This can cause people to minimize the danger and think it is overblown and thus ignore the recommendations. That would be very unwise. One woman, who describes herself as a “healthy 48 year old with no underlying conditions”, came down with the disease and had to be treated in the emergency room said that after her recovery, she was so irritated by all the comments that she read on various sites dismissing the threat that she decided to describe her “brutal” ordeal in order to let others know what it is really like and warn them not to take things lightly.

This kind of denial is not limited to just individuals. We saw how the Chinese government initially dismissed the threat and the young doctor who raised the alarm about the appearance of a new disease as far back as last December was belittled and even harassed, when early action might have saved many lives in Wuhan province. Researchers are now saying that the quick spread of the disease there was caused by non-symptomatic carriers of the disease moving around freely. That doctor tragically died but the public outrage over his treatment and death seemed to have had some effect on the Chinese government that suddenly went into overdrive in its containment efforts, so much so that they seem to have been able to bring it under control and even offer assistance in equipment and expertise to other countries. One of the things that seemed to have worked is serious social distancing so that the once bustling streets of major Chinese cities are apparently eerily empty. Being a highly authoritarian government undoubtedly helped in getting people to get off the streets but even such governments need some level of voluntary compliance to avoid people subtly subverting the policies, and that seems to have happened.

In the US too there was initial denial, especially from Donald Trump and the right wing media that dismissed the whole thing as a hoax designed to embarrass the Dear Leader, leading them to ignore the urgency of the problem and even make the stupid decision to reject the offer by the WHO of test kits, choosing instead to develop home-grown versions that initially did not work and led to costly delays.

The short-sightedness of some officials who should know better is exemplified by the governor of West Virginia Jim Justice who as late as Monday actually urged people to go out and about to restaurants and bars and stores, just because at that time there had been no reported cases in his state. Then the very next day, a case was reported and he closed all bars, restaurants, and casinos. And then there was the governor of Oklahoma Kevin Stitt who tweeted a photo of himself and his children at a crowded restaurant on Saturday, saying “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight!” Because of the swift and severe backlash to his idiocy, he has since deleted the tweet. The next day he declared a state of emergency in his state. Need we be surprised that in 2018 Still gave a speech in which he said that vaccinations should be a choice and that he had not vaccinated his six children? Who knows how much the virus spread because of the delay caused by this kind of cavalier attitude?

The problem is compounded by some people simply not following the guidelines for social distancing because they think they are either immune or do not understand the idea that they could be non-symptomatic carriers. Shannon Keating writes that the recommendation to avoid contact with others and not got out unless absolutely necessary has resulted in many tense conversations within families and friends because of the vastly different levels of seriousness with which people are taking it, especially with some young people who, because they feel that they are immune, think they need not follow any of the guidelines, not realizing (or perhaps not caring) that they are putting others at risk.

Shaheen, a 28-year-old from Atlanta, was horrified to learn that her younger brother and cousins wanted to carry on with their spring break plans in Orlando next week. “None of them cared that they could be vectors,” she said. “I had to call their parents and force them not to let them go.” Without her intervention, her family would have carried on as normal.

A pandemic makes clear that we aren’t actually a nation composed of individual people and our nuclear families: We do, in fact, live in a society, and we’re all dependent on one another. So, too, does this crisis reveal, as Dan Kois wrote for Slate, “just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest.”

But trying to convince young, healthy people to stay inside — especially during the first week of beautiful spring weather — is a different beast. Over the weekend, here in New York and in other projected coronavirus hotspots around the country, bars and restaurants were packed with people who either hadn’t heard, didn’t believe, or didn’t really care about widespread guidance to self-isolate. Gothamist reported that on Saturday night in Brooklyn, clubs were filling up just a few blocks away from the hospital with the first recorded fatality linked to the virus. “I’m not worried because I’m not immunocompromised,” one 26-year-old said.

That’s the mentality a lot of millennials have right now: I’m not at risk, so why should I blow up my life? Wanting to support local businesses and service workers facing an uncertain future is one thing — though I will note that donating to mutual aid funds and buying gift cards to use later is a great way to do so without breaking isolation! — but refusing to cancel fun plans out just because you were looking forward to them is another. If other people have canceled their weddings and are staying home from loved ones’ funerals, the rest of us can afford to sit out brunch.

Perhaps the hardest conversations of all have been the ones between partners, whether past or present. One Canadian man told me that his ex-wife is “not informing or placing reasonable expectations on our kids,” even though he and their mother and grandmother are all in high-risk groups. “It’s incredibly hard to do it on my own,” he said.

A 38-year-old woman in Kentucky is dealing with a similar situation. Her 8-year-old’s dad is “not taking any of this seriously, and last weekend took my son to an indoor play place. I can’t keep my son from him or I’ll get taken to court. Meanwhile I’m hoping my son doesn’t get sick, and that I don’t get it from him,” especially because her parents can’t watch him while she’s working because they’re older and therefore vulnerable.

It is not just young people who are taking this far too lightly. EJ Dickson describes how she had to scream and shriek and nag at her parents to stop them from going to concerts and the like, even though they are at high risk.

In those comparatively early days of the epidemic in the U.S., however, social distancing was being actively encouraged for people in at-risk categories, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions.

As a 62-year-old man prone to pneumonia, my father is both. So to say I was aggressive in my attempts to get him to cancel would be an understatement. I cried. I shrieked. I threatened. I cajoled. I sent him articles about social distancing and studies about at-risk groups and announcements from public health officials. Then I cried and screamed some more. Eventually, he told me he decided not to go because he knew it would cause me anguish if he did. I felt guilty, but immensely relieved. Then I called my mother, who told me when she answered the phone that she was at a performance of Riverdancei with my sister. And thus, the cycle of shrieking began anew.

This was just the first in a slew of arguments I’ve had over the past week with my parents about their behavior, which vacillates between sober and well-advised and, in my opinion, silly and irresponsible.

Through it all, I’ve had the distinct feeling that I was very much in the same position that my parents were in when they were raising me and watching me make decisions that were detrimental to my well-being. I’ve even found myself using the same vernacular. “I’m not mad at you,” I said during one breathless, tear-streaked screaming session, “just disappointed.” And as I’ve been treating my parents like they’ve been treating my teenage self, so too have they been playing the role of the petulant adolescent, eager to go on the spring-break trip to Mexico with the friend with more permissive parents.

Even if you think that all these precautions are overblown and that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, this is not the time to make your own policy about what to do. Just follow the damn recommended guidelines.


  1. machintelligence says

    Here in Denver the Botanic Garden proposed to leave their outside exhibits open, since distancing would be easy; but they now have closed as well.

  2. says

    I’ve been pausing now and again to boggle over the fact that something like 50% of Chinese men smoke cigarettes. So, there’s a public health disaster ongoing in the framework of another public health disaster. It’s disasters all the way down.

  3. blf says

    @3, It’s been speculated the very high rate of smoking amongst men but low rate for women in Big China might be a factor in why men may be more at-risk from Covid-19.

    Recently in PZ’s current [Pandemic and] Political Madness All The Time thread, I wrote (slightly edited (not marked)):

    France24 interviewed a John Hopkins researcher discussing data from Big China which suggests elderly men are much more likely to die from Covid-19 than women. That’s an angle I wasn’t previously aware of. Gender and the coronavirus: Why are more men dying than women?:

    [… E]arly data from China shows that more men than women are dying from coronavirus. Annette Young talks about why with Professor Sabra Klein, a specialist on gender differences in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health.

    Professor Klein was very clear and articulate, and the journalist, Ms Young, gave her the time to talk and explain.

  4. says

    And in another act of ignorance and selfishness, Jim Heath (aka Reverend Horton Heat) blathered about “free assembly rights!” and “we have bills to pay!” after his shows were shut down by promoters. His own fans criticized him, but he’s oblivious.
    I looked through the facebook thread. To his credit, he’s not engaging in profanities, insults or personal attacks. But he still doesn’t get it.

  5. says

    A couple of weeks ago I stopped in at my local VFW post for a beer and sat near a fellow vet going on and on about how this was all a hoax and the virus was just an average cold.

    I corrected him on the obvious falsehoods he was spouting, but after I finished my beer I decided that—until we get some kind of “all clear” notice—the post was not a safe place to be.

    Given that this is a private club, I wonder if they’re finally closed (now that even Fox News is recognizing the threat) or if they’re shouldering on.

    I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

  6. says

    One of my readers this morning reminded me of the 1957 Asian Flu pandemic that killed more than 100,000 Americans at a time when our population was 172 million.

    He pointed me to an article “Say Your Prayers and Take Your Chances” by the 80-something Clark Whelton who was a college student at the time and contracted the flu.

  7. Some Old Programmer says

    I just stumbled across this piece of ugly news in the Boston Globe: Massachusetts had 20,000 people filing for unemployment on Monday. While the thrust of the article is that that’s more than filed in February, I’m envisioning the state unemployment office teeming with people.

  8. Sam N says

    I find myself very frustrated at the sheer idiocy of all the people saying, “I’m healthy, I’m not afraid of this virus. I won’t let it stop me from living my life how I want to.”

    You selfish, puerile, assholes. I don’t have fear of the virus on myself either, but I’m not about to spread it to others, or end up with a case of pneumonia and taking up healthcare resources others need right now for such small-minded selfish reasons. This isn’t about you, this is about all of the people you can harm by ignoring these guidelines. Other people that DO have a reason to fear this virus.

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