„Social Distancing" Will Make Matters Worse

March 2020

In times of the corona pandemic, social contacts are more important than ever. We must use the unifying potential of the digital world to counteract the undesirable consequences of social distancing.

by Henry Alt-Haaker and Daniel S. Hamilton

Social Distancing
Adobe Stock / Kzenon

As we seek to do the right thing in the midst of the COVID-19 uncertainty, we are being told to practice “social distancing.” The intent is sound: we want to break the chain of infection by keeping our distance from other people. Yet the purpose of such actions is really “spatial distancing,” not social distancing. This one-word shift can make a monumental difference in our attitude and in our approach to this crisis. Physical distance, yes; social distance, no.

Refraining from social contacts can exacerbate mental health challenges. It risks greater rates of depression and suicide. It will only worsen the loneliness already felt by many elderly and infirm. Without social connections, stress on people in confined spaces could lead to a spike in cases of domestic violence. Societal tensions could increase as the burden of spatial distancing falls disproportionately on low-income families who may live in smaller spaces or have fewer chances to work from home, on single parents who have to cover childcare while working, or on individuals who are paid relatively little to deliver staples anonymously to the doorsteps of the wealthy.

We Must Fill the Void

As we step back, let us reach out. Sports clubs, neighborhood associations, places of worship – all of these pillars of societal stability are currently unavailable. We must fill the void. Now more than ever it is important that we embrace the “social” in constructive, healthful, and innovative ways to underscore mutual support and that we are all in this together—locally, nationally, and internationally.

Let’s not waste this crisis. Let us take advantage of these highly unfamiliar circumstances by enhancing our social bonds. That starts with self-care: each of us taking time to ensure our own mental and physical health. It continues with other-care: checking in with friends and family members; engaging isolated seniors; demonstrating respect and appreciation for those who continue to attend to our health, restock our supermarkets, and run our transportation systems. It extends to the many different ways we can express empathy for the personal challenges each of us are facing.

Harnessing the Uniting Power of the Digital World

Much of this can be done through virtual sharing: videoconferences and hangouts, distance working, vicariously enjoying cultural offerings, playing games, participating in yoga classes, joining online religious services. We have a chance once again to harness the uniting power of the digital world, which lately has become a source of polarization and division in times of hate speech, disinformation and political echo chambers. Now is the time to protect and enhance our connectedness, not to weaken or question it.

However, high tech can’t fully replace high touch. Analog solutions remain important to those with little or no digital access. Those in need of care are more reliant now on caregivers who can reach beyond the transactional, who can listen and converse. Those isolated at home are more dependent on those who are mindful of their needs. The good news is that this is already happening. We are shopping for at-risk neighbors. We are applauding healthcare workers. We are even singing from balconies.

Keep Your Distance. But Stay Social.

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with our lives, our economies, our very sense of the future. Once the hurricane has passed, what will it have left behind? Will we be dealing with global pandemics more frequently? What is the appropriate balance between individual rights and societal responsibilities? What will be the future of work? Will we emerge from this crisis with more or less trust in science, in the media, in international collaboration, in our own political and economic decision-makers – in ourselves?

We will best address these questions by reaching beyond our spatial distance, working collaboratively, exchanging ideas vividly, and embracing our common humanity.

Keep your distance. But stay social.


Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Daniel S. Hamilton is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

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