COVID-19 and Social Distancing
HOW YOUR BELIEFS AFFECT THE SPREAD OF COVID-19
Jan B. Hansen, Ph.D.
NOTE: We have great compassion on everyone as we all adjust our work and families and do our best to cope with this global pandemic. We embrace the triumphs both small and great that pull us together during this challenging time. The references in this blog entry on social distancing do not apply to those who must be in contact because of their jobs or personal situation, such as healthcare professionals, first-responders, care-givers, postal workers, transport operators, pharmacy employees, grocery and food supply workers to mention a few (in the U.S.). We recognize that social distancing has had alarming consequences for millions whose work and income were abruptly halted. And we know that it is not even possible or is an extreme privilege in developing communities and impoverished areas of the world where crowded buses, homes, and daily routines necessary for survival, bring many people in very close contact. This analysis pertains to those whose lives would be inconvenienced by social distancing but who choose, for whatever reasons, to not comply.
COVID-19 and Social Distancing
I am not an epidemiologist and have no expertise with infectious diseases. I am, however a psychologist and do have insight as to why people behave as they do. I also have a love for the truth. Although it’s not a qualifier, I was born while my mother was hospitalized during a pandemic. She was infected with the Asian Flu – hanging onto life in 1957, and giving me mine. I spent the first week of my life quarantined in an incubator – my make-shift isolation unit. The Asian Flu pandemic originated in China in 1956 and lasted until 1958 as it spread to Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States. The World Health Organization lists the death toll at 2 million with 69,800 deaths in the United States. I cannot claim any memory of this, but do see the irony of my mother giving me life during a pandemic, and now, at 89 years, is in isolation and her life at great risk with another.
Nothing has killed more people than infectious diseases and yet, not all viruses are bad. Good viruses – bacteriophages (or “phages”) are found in the mucus membrane lining in the digestive, respiratory and reproductive tracts, are part of our natural immune system, and help our bodies destroy specific bacteria. The viruses in the mucus help provide a physical barrier against invading bacteria and protect the underlying cells from being infected. For over a century, phages have been used to treat dysentery, sepsis caused by staphylococcus aureus, salmonella and skin infections. So, viruses can help.
They can also harm. The 1918 Flu Pandemic infected over one third of the world’s population and claimed the lives of 20-50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Experts know that pandemics have killed more people in the history of humankind than all wars, acts of terror and natural disasters combined.
Enter COVID-19. As you are well aware, the coronavirus has spread pandemically throughout the world. Medical experts in the U.S., led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the Institute of National Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have urged government leaders and public health officials to issue clear-cut and firm warnings about the dangers we are all facing and to put appropriate measures in place. Models vary, but the outcomes are tragic when we choose to delay or do nothing to stem the spread or refuse to adjust our behavior.
But human nature is to not accept a problem – until it is a problem – for us personally, as individuals. We have seen plenty of this as many people from some of our most renown global leaders to the neighbor next door, who cannot yet foresee the pain a pandemic will cause, or do not believe it will happen to them, and therefore dismiss the experts’ warnings. It is also very human to be confused by exponential math that is difficult to visualize and therefore difficult to accept. However, we are all responsible during a pandemic to be sufficiently informed to protect ourselves and others.
The number of those who fall ill and die from this global pandemic depends very much on how seriously each one of us takes our own role in slowing its spread. “We’re in this together” means “the compliance of one affects the outcomes for all”.
The goal of social distancing is to limit or prevent contact between those who are infected and those who aren’t. It requires distancing ourselves from others and keeping that distance. It is one of the most effective tools we have against COVID-19. It is not thinking we know who is infected and who is not. It is not identifying a group of people you enjoy, are related to, work with or simply ‘miss’, and acting as normal with them. It means distancing yourself from every single person who does not live with you in your home or apartment.
According to health officials and experts, social distancing with COVID-19 could prevent as many as 2 million deaths in the U.S. alone. One survivor, who was treated at the same hospital as Mr. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the U.K., said with tears in his eyes, “I’ve survived, but I watched people stricken with this virus as they took their last breath. So, I can’t understand why people won’t take this seriously”.
Similarly, many of us have watched in disbelief and alarm as others in a public space, ignore or defy the experts and the public officials who have advised and ruled that we are all to keep social distance. Most U.S. State governors at time of publication (April 14, 2020), have issued “stay home” orders. Therefore, it seems justified to be incredulous and wonder what could possibly prompt these people to act in ways that trigger risk not only for themselves but also for the most vulnerable among us “Don’t they care?” “What are they thinking?”.
Sure: People care. But people act in ways that align with their beliefs. A person’s belief system provides a foundation for that person’s actions. So, when a person’s behavior is clearly reckless, misguided or foolish, something is clearly askew with an underlying belief, attitude or thought process.
If you do notice a bit of yourself as you read about the disconnects below, it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person. It just means you’re human. As a human, you get to embrace this gift: The gift of being able to self-reflect upon your own attitudes, to examine your beliefs and to change them accordingly as you learn new information. If you choose.
Attitudinal Disconnects That Prevent Social Distancing
“I have a right to do what I want”
Very few people like to be told what to do. The belief that I am entitled and “I can do what I want” regardless of being asked not to, can lead a person to not practice social distancing. Some may have a habit of pushing against authority. Others have mentioned their patriotism as they argue that it’s their right to practice their freedoms. It is clear though, that a majority in the U.S. is complying or even leading compliance efforts – including sports teams, entertainers, business leaders and others whose livelihoods rely on crowds. Several are tapping into their patriotism as they promote a common bond in defeating a common enemy – Coronavirus.
“I’m not hurting anyone but me.”
Some people might believe that they are entitled to choose, and that not social distancing is a personal choice that affects them only. But it’s not. Choosing to be in close contact with others at this time, endangers those who are most at risk—minority communities, the elderly, those with respiratory problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and other underlying conditions. The U.S. has many citizens who fall in these high-risk groups. We all have a role in protecting the vulnerable. In addition, what are the vulnerable supposed to do while the entitled make them more so?
“I don’t know anyone who’s sick.”
When a person assumes that their own narrow set of experiences applies to broader situations, they overgeneralize and distort reality. Based on this logic, these people may think that the COVID-19 crisis can’t be any worse than previous illnesses they’ve had, or any worse than what is visible directly in the here and now. “I healed up from other illnesses.” “I don’t know anyone who’s sick.” But our own limited experiences are only as useful as they are relevant. Therefore, generalizing from other illnesses or from what is visible to only us, ignores the experiences of others, ignores what the experts, such as Dr. Fauci, have studied for years, and ignores the unique features, aggression and persistence of this coronavirus. This could also be deemed ‘arrogance’.
One example is that the virus is transmitted – easily – from those who have no symptoms to multiple others. The ease of transmission and the ability for asymptomatic people to spread COVID-19 is exactly how this virus went from a handful of people in one community in Fall, 2019 to nearly 2 million persons in 185 countries just six months later. Think how glad we would all be if we knew that the number of infections went from the 1.9 million today (April 14) to just a handful. But that is where we were just six months ago. A handful of cases led to what we are experiencing now.
“This is no big deal”
Many people downplay the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis. From presidents and other government leaders to the neighbor next door, we’ve heard the following:
- “It’s no worse than the flu.” People often repeat this, though it is clearly false. For example, you are 3-4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the flu. And don’t forget that the flu is responsible for millions of deaths in previous pandemics and persists as I write. We’ve been dealing with flus for over one hundred years – building herd immunity with the help of developed vaccines. We have none of this with the novel virus COVID-19.
- “It doesn’t affect my age group.” This belief is particularly disturbing. Most important – it’s not true. COVID-19 affects all ages and all groups. But even if true, why should this be a reason to not take precautions? Aren’t we motivated to protect the vulnerable among us?
- “80% of people have mild symptoms.” We are grateful that it’s true that not everyone who contracts the coronavirus will end up in ICU. However, if your “mild” case and social contact brings illness and perhaps death to someone, why is it ok to not distance yourself for a period of time?
“I’m not worried.”
Good! Worry and fear get us nowhere. But if we are relying on a gut feeling that there’s no concern here because we, ourselves, are not worried, we are disconnecting from reality. Feelings are very often unreliable. We need to ask ourselves how adept we are at applying logic when our emotions are in play. We might be convinced that COVID-19 is not a serious issue because it doesn’t trigger our own emotions—yet. “It doesn’t worry me, so it’s no big deal.” “My family and friends aren’t worried either.” But reality doesn’t care about your feelings, nor the views of those influencing you. Being dismissive of information doesn’t change the truth about the virus and its spread.
“This will all amount to nothing.”
Some people are sure this will end up being much ado about nothing. People cite their experience in previous outbreaks, previous illnesses or disasters and emerge confident that they know what’s going to happen this time around. I am convinced they have never studied a pandemic or listened to the stories of those ravaged by one. These prophecies can be especially appealing when they offer reassurance that everything will be okay. This has a double whammy* when the one who feels assured cites faith or belief in God who is in control. It is ironic that these people ignore the information and patterns established by the very God they claim to lean on.
A better approach would be to adopt a fresh learner mindset and take responsibility for learning what we can about the patterns in the natural world – patterns that many believe God established. We can then assess the predictions of those who know a lot more than we do about those patterns, about this virus and how best to prevent or slow its spread.
We can all humbly assume that the knowledge of medical experts is made available like no other time in history and is put in front of us for a reason. We are privileged to have facts, information and a wealth of experience from others who have learned through experience and careful study. They have made predictions based upon what is known about past pandemics and learned from current sufferers. Who are we to think that our own narrow band of thoughts and experiences and feelings are more relevant than those of all others? It helps to adopt a “learner’s mind,” and welcome the knowledge and wisdom as we face this novel disease.
If you have caught any glimpses of yourself in these beliefs, you can ask:
- What data support my belief? Did I inadvertently ignore anything?
- Do I want a fuller awareness of this situation? Should I update my belief?
- Am I open to new beliefs? Some changes in attitude? Changed behavior?
As a reminder of what was said earlier: If you do notice a bit of yourself here, it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person. It just means you’re human. As a human, you get to embrace this gift: The gift of being able to reflect upon your own attitudes, to examine your beliefs and to change them accordingly as you learn new information. If you choose.
We all can do the hard work of aligning our beliefs and attitudes with the facts as best they are known, and let truth guide our actions.
* While this article is intended primarily for persons in developed countries, we just read the Wall Street Journal report on Tanzania’s president and are sickened to learn he has encouraged all Tanzanians to go pray at churches and mosques to quell a satanic virus that can only be cured by divine intervention. While we support fully the call to prayer, we dread to think what will happen after the gatherings. For the last two weeks, President John Magufuli has been attending services, planting the idea that immunity to coronavirus is an outcome of ‘enough faith’. He has stirred the cheering congregations and stated that coronavirus cannot survive in the bodies of the faithful. In recent days, churches and mosques have swelled with worshipers. My personal hope is that people would not fall victim to testing God this way, but that in spite of themselves, they would be spared the contagious coronavirus that has emerged elsewhere with such gatherings.
Bariyo, N. & Parkinson, J. (2020). Tanzania’s leader encourages people to worship in throngs against coronavirus. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/tanzanias-leader-urges-people-to-worship-in-throngs-against-coronavirus-11586347200
Gillihan, S. J. (2020). Five bad reasons people aren’t social distancing. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/202003/5-bad-reasons-some-people-still-arent-social-distancing
Noko, K. (2020). In africa, social distancing is a privilege few can afford. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/africa-social-distancing-privilege-afford-200318151958670.html
Walsh, B. (2020). COVID-19: The History of Pandemics. British Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200325-covid-19-the-history-of-pandemics