The coronavirus has changed how we work, play and learn: Schools are closing, sports leagues have been canceled, and many people have been asked to work from home.
On March 16, the Trump administration released new guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including closing schools and avoiding groups of more than 10 people, discretionary travel, bars, restaurants, and food courts.
How are you dealing with these sudden and dramatic changes to how we live? Are you practicing social distancing and are you even sure what that really means?
In “Wondering About Social Distancing?” Apoorva Mandavilli explains the term and offers practical guidance from experts:
What is social distancing?
Put simply, the idea is to maintain a distance between you and other people in this case, at least six feet.
That also means minimizing contact with people. Avoid public transportation whenever possible, limit nonessential travel, work from home and skip social gatherings and definitely do not go to crowded bars and sporting arenas.
“Every single reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population,” said Dr. Gerardo Chowell, chair of population health sciences at Georgia State University.
This strategy saved thousands of lives both during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and, more recently, in Mexico City during the 2009 flu pandemic.
The article continues with expert responses to some common questions about social distancing. Here are excerpts from three:
I’m young and don’t have any risk factors. Can I continue to socialize?
Please don’t. There is no question that older people and those with underlying health conditions are most vulnerable to the virus, but young people are by no means immune.
And there is a greater public health imperative. Even people who show only mild symptoms may pass the virus to many, many others particularly in the early course of the infection before they even realize they are sick. So you might keep the chain of the infection going right to your own older or high-risk relatives. You may also contribute to the number of people infected, causing the pandemic to grow rapidly and overwhelm the health care system.
If you ignore the guidance on social distancing, you will essentially put yourself and everyone else at much higher risk.
Experts acknowledged that social distancing is tough, especially for young people who are used to gathering in groups. But even cutting down the number of gatherings, and the number of people in any group will help.
Can I leave my house?
Absolutely. The experts were unanimous in their answer to this question.
It’s O.K. to go outdoors for fresh air and exercise to walk your dog, go for a hike or ride your bicycle, for example. The point is not to remain indoors, but to avoid being in close contact with people.
You may also need to leave the house for medicines or other essential resources. But there are things you can do to keep yourself and others safe during and after these excursions.
When you do leave your home, wipe down any surfaces you come into contact with, disinfect your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer and avoid touching your face. Above all, frequently wash your hands especially whenever you come in from outside, before you eat or before you’re in contact with the very old or very young.
How long will we need to practice social distancing?
That is a big unknown, experts said. A lot will depend on how well the social distancing measures in place work and how much we can slow the pandemic down. But prepare to hunker down for at least a month, and possibly much longer.
In Seattle, the recommendations on social distancing have continued to escalate with the number of infections and deaths, and as the health system has become increasingly strained.
“For now, it’s probably indefinite,” Dr. Marrazzo said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
Abdullah Shihipar writes in an Opinion essay, “Coronavirus and the Isolation Paradox,” that while social distancing is required to prevent infection, loneliness can make us sick:
A paradox of this moment is that while social distancing is required to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it may also contribute to poor health in the long run. So while physical isolation will be required for many Americans who have Covid-19 or have been exposed to it, it’s important that we don’t let such measures cause social and emotional isolation, too.
The Health Resources and Services Administration cautions that loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can increase the likelihood of depression, high blood pressure, and death from heart disease. They can also affect the immune system’s ability to fight infection a fact that’s especially relevant during a pandemic. Studies have shown that loneliness can activate our fight-or-flight function, causing chronic inflammation and reducing the body’s ability to defend itself from viruses.
For solutions, we can look at countries where people have been dealing with coronavirus for some time. As the BBC reported, people in China are turning to creative means to stay connected. Some are streaming concerts and gym classes. Others are organizing virtual book-club meetings. In Wuhan, people gathered at their windows to shout “Wuhan, jiayou!” which translates to “Keep fighting, Wuhan!” A business owner packed 200 meals for medical workers, while a villager in a neighboring province donated 15,000 masks to those in need.
For those of us who know people, especially elderly people, who may be isolated, get connected. Check-in daily and look for ways to spend time together, either through a FaceTime or WhatsApp call, through collaborative gaming or just by using the telephone.
It may provide some comfort to know that thousands of other people are going through the same thing, and as in China, collective coping strategies will emerge. TikTok videos, memes, stories, essays, and poems about living in isolation will all become part of the culture. We could come out of this feeling more connected to each other than before.