Public health measures being implemented to limit transmission of the pandemic COVID-19 coronavirus are creating a surreal moment across the US and in many places around the world. This global event implicates communication in several ways. A communicable disease is bringing us all together, much of the world, in battle against a common enemy (ah, those war metaphors), even while it divides us with travel bans, restrictions on social gatherings, and panic that fuels antisocial behaviors ranging from stealing face masks to hoarding toilet paper.
Right now the situation is profoundly ambiguous and the solution to that problem of uncertainty is universally acknowledged in principle (if not always in practice) to be information -- clear, accurate, reliable, transparent, uncontaminated by rumor, disinformation, conspiracy theories. My inbox is flooded with messages from organizations all professing their deep concern for my health and well being, apologizing for their disrupted services, and offering advice. Information is getting out, to be sure. but the uncertainty remains. How long will this go on? How dangerous is it, really? What should I do?
In answer to what I should do, today's keyword is social distancing -- stay at home, avoid crowds, keep your distance to avoid catching the virus or passing it to others. No hugs or handshakes allowed. Suddenly everyone is working from home, teaching online with course management and videoconferencing systems, "zooming in" or "skyping in" to meetings. The Zoom videoconferencing app has reached #1 in the Apple App Store. Large organizations like the International Communication Association are moving their annual conferences with thousands of participants to online virtual conferencing systems.
In addition to concerns about the persistent "digital divides" that inequitably limit access to these various online systems, it's easy to imagine that the systems themselves will soon be overwhelmed and start crashing, but it doesn't seem to be happening yet. If these systems largely all keep working through the crisis, we will have crossed a huge threshold. The technical possibility having been proven, the question will be how users evaluate the experience. Will we all "go green," avoiding unnecessary travel by shifting to remote work and virtual conferencing, or will we recoil from all this social distancing, more convinced than ever that there's no substitute for face to face communication?
As a term for communication, "social distancing" is ambivalent at best. It may be what we have to do at the moment but it's not generally a happy thing. The term doesn't have a long history. It's not in the Oxford dictionary. A Google Ngram search shows it originated in the 1950's as a term used by social psychologists to describe people's psychological sense of distance from others as well as their physical spacing in social situations. The usage curve rose steeply in the 1970's (the heyday of "intimacy" and "closeness" as terms for good communication) and again since the early 2000's, when it seems to have entered the medical and public health fields in its current sense of a method to prevent disease transmission. Suddenly it is everywhere. In a Lexis-Nexis search I found "social distancing" in 1,209 news articles in February 2020 compared to just 8 articles in February 2019. A Google web search returned almost 59 million hits for "social distancing" (in quotes).
The newer, disease prevention sense of social distancing collides with its older sense of psychological separation between people. One Twitter user quips, "It’s good to know I wasn’t unpopular in high school... everyone around me was just practicing #SocialDistancing really early." Adding "loneliness" to the Google search with "social distancing" gets more than 97,000 hits. Some of the highest ranked results address the likelihood that the current public health measures may be damaging our mental health even as they protect our physical health. And the physical protection can be self-defeating because a lot of people are lonely nowadays, and loneliness can make us sick. Writing in The New York Times, Abdullah Shihipar describes this as the "Isolation Paradox" and argues we need creative solutions, including the use of communication technologies, to protect vulnerable people from the effects of isolation:
For solutions, we can look to 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.A Scientific American article advises, "[w]hether you are quarantined, working remotely or just being cautious, now is the perfect time to practice using technology in socially healthy ways" and goes on to offer "a few suggestions for how to connect without contact." Among the suggestions are video chatting, liking social media posts, and using various apps to connect with friends and loved ones.
Los Angeles Times columnist Nita Lelyveld raises a question: "We text and order food on apps. Why does coronavirus social distancing feel different?" In response she points to the difference between voluntary and involuntary isolation and expresses her hope that the current enforced isolation will rekindle our appreciation for the pleasures of human contact:
It’s one thing to work from home because you feel like it and you can. It’s another to be told that you cannot go spend the day with your co-workers in the office. It’s one thing to stream a movie by choice or to choose to watch a basketball game on TV. It’s another to be told that you should not go to a movie theater, that you can’t go to a basketball game, that concerts have been called off.
It’s one thing to order in food because you want to put on your comfy clothes and curl up on the couch. It’s another to be told by the experts that it might be best not even to see or greet your delivery person but to have your order left at the front door.
It’s so different to know that you can step out into a crowd again whenever you’re tired of the couch and of texting. Now that crowds are canceled, I am longing for them.
Right now, already, I want nothing more than to go out to eat with friends, to hug a neighbor, to hold a hand. Instead my neighbor stands on the sidewalk and I stay on the porch and we wish each other well from a safe distance.
I’m hoping we get to the other side of this without large-scale tragedy. There’s no way of knowing yet if we will.
But if we do, I’m hoping that the experience of social distancing gives us pause and makes us realize how much we have missed company, not just the company of those we know and love but of strangers.