The pandemic of distance

Have truck drivers been prescient all along? Apart from ‘Horn Please’ the other most common diktat they have painted on the rear side has always been ‘Keep Distance’! In these times of COVID 19 that command now reverberates all around us. Images of people obeying the rules of social distancing in public spaces jostle alongside images of people throwing caution to the winds in various gatherings. ‘Social distancing’ is emerging as the way forward as the epidemic shows little sign of waning all around the globe, and it is by far the most difficult one to follow. 

crowd reflection color toy
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A non-pharmaceutical intervention in management of contagious diseases, keeping distance from the ill has been a practice both in nature and in human history. Animals such as monkeys, bats, insects and ants practice social distance from the sick in their species to survive. Ants that live in close quarters in large numbers rapidly change behaviors when any illness spreads through their colony. The sick isolate and healthy ants stay away.

macro photo of five orange ants
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In human history probably the first mention of this behavior of isolating the sick finds mention in the Bible in the Book of Leviticus 13:46: “And the leper in whom the plague is … he shall dwell alone; [outside] the camp shall his habitation be.” The practice of staying at a distance from the ill has been followed throughout in history in the major pandemics that have hit humanity.

If both in nature and in our history there has been social distancing, why does it seem so hard? Why does it sound the death knell of life as we know it? The idea that we have to maintain social distance outside the house in every space – markets, offices, public transport and even hospitals – is very difficult to imagine. And it seems that we have to embrace it for at least for the foreseeable future.

The answer lies in how we have evolved as a species both physically and culturally. When our ancestors stood up on their two legs, one of the reasons was food sharing, especially free the hands to carry food for the young and their caregivers. The discovery of tools, and the sharing of that information through social interaction, the discovery of a 8,00,000 year old fractured femur that had healed – all point to the fact that humanity has coexisted in groups, caring and sharing with each other. We humans, contrary to cynical belief, have evolved to become masters of this planet due to the benefits of collaboration and working collectively.

That is why we long for the simple things that were enjoyed collectively before this pandemic – school, college, hanging out with friends, in restaurants or theaters, attending weddings, going to religious places, traveling to experience different places at close quarters. This sense of community and togetherness seem to be stolen from our lives in the command of social distancing. It is not only in everyday life; in the battle against COVID, even the normal instinct of looking after the sick has been snuffed. Unfortunately, people who contract the disease are isolated from their families and loved ones. Illness has always been a time for the family to rally around and support the sick and their family. COVID19 stops us from being there for those in our circle who need it the most. Infact, it is also taking away dignity in death and isolating both the living and the dead. The demands of COVID-19 prevention through social distancing go against our natural instincts and hence pose such a challenge.

woman holding sign
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Struggling with the new ‘normal’ imposed by the virus, we have turned to the internet. This tool of modern life has gained premium. We are physically distant, but thanks to the internet not totally socially cut-off. Before the pandemic, the internet was being lambasted for encouraging social isolation. Facebook friends and twitter followers were the culprits that made people lose touch with real life and emotions. Suddenly, all that has passed and the internet with its latest offerings of online conferencing, webinars, chat groups, education and online performances has become the mesh that holds us together and fulfils our evolutionary urge. Can the internet completely diminish the urge for face to face interactions? That currently seems far-fetched, but in a world that is changing exponentially there can be few predictions! 

These days in the market or in a park we stop or change direction when someone comes from the opposite direction to keep distance. Messages on WhatsApp exhort us to treat every person we meet as an asymptomatic COVID carrier and maintain social distance! This is not the world we have lived in nor would we like to inhabit such a world indefinitely. So, presently we follow the truck drivers’ diktat in our daily lives scrupulously, in anticipation that one day this will end.  

little children using laptop together lying on bed
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Both nature and history tell us that social distancing is always a temporary measure. This hiccup of imposed social distancing will embed in us the value and sheer joy of human interaction and togetherness. Hopefully, that would be its lasting legacy. 

Published in Hindi in the Dainik Bhaskar on 24 June 2020

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