Going the Social Distance
It was a small, distant thing at first. There was barely a whisper on my Facebook feed. A few people talking about a sickness—no, a virus—spreading through China. A place that might as well have been another world. Beyond the typical social media, I saw a few articles making appearances on the online and television news media outlets.
The illness, caused by a bug in the coronavirus family, became know simply as the ‘Coronavirus’ by most of those same news sources. At first, it wasn’t taken very seriously here in the United States. People made light of the fact that it shared a name with the popular brand of Mexican beer and the jokes and the memes abounded in all the social media threads. I chuckled along with my friends at this while still keeping an eye on the developments.
As the days stretched into weeks, the coverage began to change. The tone abroad certainly changed as the news reports tried to convey the seriousness of how the virus was spreading in China and how it had began to spread beyond that country and to others all over Asia and beyond. The local governments struggled to control the spread of the virus, taking various measures. Quarantines were implemented, restrictions in gatherings, then the closing of public spaces, including restaurants and shops, were reported in countries in Europe—especially Italy.
Still, being in North America, I felt somewhat removed from the dangers. Life continued to operate as it always had. I traveled as I liked. I got groceries at the grocery store, shopped elsewhere, ate at my favorite restaurants, and visited my local bar to spend time with my friends. Still, no one was taking it that seriously. But a few were becoming mildly concerned. Then the first cases appeared in the western states like Washington.
I felt a little more concern myself, but still. There weren’t any cases where I lived, in the Midwest. But that reprieve didn’t last very long. The city of Chicago and the counties of northern Illinois declared confirmed cases of the coronavirus—which the media was now calling COVID-19.
It was no longer a distant threat. This was creeping closer and closer to where I lived and to where my children lived. The discussions about measures to contain the outbreak were being discussed by pundits and reporters on U.S. media networks and in the op-eds and articles of their online counterparts. The medical experts were chiming in and the Presidential administration was rolling out a rather confusing if not incompetent response to the looming threat. It became clear to me that things were going to get worse, but I didn’t want to admit it.
I guess my friends were the same. We tried to talk lightly about what were just rumors at the time. There were all sorts from the reasoned to the ridiculous. As has been the case, social media provided a place for genuine and legitimate discussion of the issues of public health and safety, economics, and societal response to the progress of the coronavirus. But it just as easily devolved into all manner of conspiracy theorizing, fear-mongering, ugliness, and dangerous half-truths.
My world was changing around me. It was changing for us all.
The cases of the virus spread from state to state across the nation. Measures that once seemed unbelievable or something that happened in other, distant places were now beginning to happen here in my home. More and more individuals were quarantined. Whole communities followed. I became familiar with a new term, social distancing just as it was beginning to impact my personal life and those of my friends.
Given the rate of the virus’s transmission, federal and state governments were forced to enforce more measures to limit exposure and, hopefully, slow the spread. Even as I write this from my home, my entire state is under a ‘stay-at-home’ order. Many businesses have shuttered. Restaurants are closed to dine-ins, but are eeking by through carry out and delivery services. ‘Essential services’ like hospitals, grocers, fuel stations, and law enforcement are still in operation to make sure society doesn’t totally unravel. My favorite bar has closed like all the rest and I realize how important that social interaction had become. I’d made new friends along the way and they were suffering as I was from the simple act of not sharing a drink in the friendly surroundings.
We humans being the social animals that we are have tried to combat the alienness of social distancing by reaching out more through social media and sharing new and old experiences alike. We’re trying to get by, all of us. I know that, fundamentally, the very thing that saves us might also kill us. We have to stay away from one another when we’d rather embrace one another. The isolation and the loneliness that result can be devastating.
It can truly feel like we are all alone, like solitary islands in an endless, turbulent sea. But, John Donne’s poem rings true to day even as it has for the last four centuries:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
All of us, we need each other, you know. We are a part of each other, effecting and influences each other in every way. Though we often ignore this deep truth, it remains true regardless. Our love for each other must work more powerfully and more freely when the simple act of touch can give that awful virus a foothold in our lives—or worse harm those we care about. I try and I do what I can to remember you. Do try to remember me. We are in this together.
Produced by Eugenio Zorrilla.