Social distancing, not social isolation!

1,300 words
Read time @ 250 words/minute: 5 minutes
(With addendums: 2,900 words / 12 minutes)
Note 1: Rather than “main points” at the start, I’ve bolded them in their respective sections.

Note 2: There’s an excellent paragraph from the NRPA’s article Keeping a Safe Physical Distance in Parks and on Trails During the COVID-19 Pandemicarguing to call this “physical distancing” instead. I’ve pasted their text below, but have not updated the language of this essay:

Updated March 27, 2020: Note, we’ve updated our language to say “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” as it is a more accurate description and is the term recommended by the World Health Organization. Keeping physical distance is essential for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean we have to socially disconnect from one another. . . .



Social distancing must not be confused with social isolation!

Attempt to stay two meters away? Of course.

Cut off all contact from other humans? Of course not.

The latter is a great way to drive the mind insane, depressive, suicidal, homicidal, or worse. We’ve all isolated ourselves by taking on projects around the home, like cleaning, organization, building, musical instruments, coding, gaming, masturbating, smartphone use, writing, reading, binge-watching media, and the like. But it’s a lot easier to hole yourself up in the house and exclude all social contact when you maintain the legal and social freedom to venture outside as you so choose. If we can’t go outside and explore as we so desire, home-based isolation suddenly becomes far more difficult. Like children, we generally want what we can’t have.

We cannot prevent the spread of this virus; that possibility is long behind us. Perhaps China has contained its spread within their borders, or perhaps not; only the coming months and years will tell. We can “flatten the curve,” as is currently popular to say, by limiting our social contact with others, especially other humans with which we don’t frequently interact. However, staying at home — for Americans, at least — cannot mean total social isolation from our neighbors. Outside of extreme urban environments, situations like that generally do not resonate well with American culture. Nor should they.

            Note: the following paragraph was written before any local or state orders in my region, and both legal directives and local social customs in your area should supersede anything here. I will strike-through the entire paragraph if a) I am incorrect, or b) guidelines/orders change.

If our aim, as Americans, is to minimize driving and leaving our physical residences (both exterior and interior), the connections we must not neglect are those of our most immediate human companions: our neighbors. As the saying goes, know your neighbors! Times like these should remind us the value of living in the particular streets, neighborhoods, regions and whole countries that fit our goals and values for a community. I would consider that we not only maintain regular social contact — with appropriate 2m distancing, of course, and outside if realistically possible — with at least a few neighbors. We might even go further, arguing to strengthen a few connections, especially for those without family in their home or city, designate 2-6 various neighbors as “like family.” These few people would be close bonds that we want to nurture, regularly entering each other’s houses, eating, walking, or otherwise being together. Indeed, most state guidelines on daycare situations for children allow for this, but with the caveat that children in each ‘group’ do not change day-to-day, and that groups remain small.*1 Obviously if/when ill, stricter distancing should be in place for the duration that is scientifically recommended for the relevant outbreak/pandemic. But as I’ll argue in the conclusion, this kind of less-random-mass-crowds-with-strangers-but-stronger-social-connections-with-smaller-human-circles is likely to bring more benefits to our health than risks. The virus will still spread, but being in smaller circles, it will spread far slower. And that’s the goal of the “flatten the curve” argument: that our healthcare capacities aren’t overwhelmed, that enough people build up immunity, and that we have time to develop an effective vaccine, helping to further reduce or even eliminate the threat.

If you are in the most extreme urban environment, your nearest five human neighbors might simply be the two apartments on either side of your own walls, ignoring the packed neighbors across, above, below, and diagonal from you. But if you’re in the most extreme rural environment, your nearest five human neighbors might be the closest two ranches to your property line. And for most suburban residents, this might be the few nearest homeowners and residents which you already know. But whatever the population density, while we might physically ‘distance’ further from these neighbors — an extra meter in the apartment building, an extra few meters out in the country side*2 — we should not totally isolate ourselves.

When will this be over? I’m anxious!

There seem to be many citizens taking extraordinary measures and treating this situation as if it is a temporary crisis which will quickly pass. This is a pandemic. Breathe. It is much less like an earthquake, hurricane, regional conflict, terrorist attack, fire, or other short-term disaster. It is more like a World War; it will not pass in a few weeks. Breathe. Things will get worse, then better, then worse again, and this may cycle many times. This particular pandemic may or may not be as bad as the middle-ages European plague or 1918 flu. Moreover, this will likely bring a recession — sadly, one long overdue since 2008 — and it may even begin a global economic depression. Tough times are ahead.

Let’s be civil, courteous, and patient — above all, to our neighbors. We have never needed each other more than we do now. And let’s smile and wave more. As tensions raise, especially in our new world’s necessarily ‘crowded’ spaces — trailheads, grocery stores, gas and subway stations, parking lots — those little courtesies like honest smiles and friendly waves will count for a lot. Social gold, we might say.

Moreover, if ever there was a time to learn and practice de-stressing techniques and projects, 2020 is the year to start. Some good ideas include: yoga, meditation, writing, musical instruments, drawing, fasting, exercise, reading, dance, etc.

And we’ll gain far more from focusing on making the most our present situation than we will from the news and social media, two industries we might easily predict to significantly profit the worse that the pandemic spreads. We only hurt ourselves when we ‘tune in’ to overbearing and unnecessary information like these forms of media provide. With the exception of longform articles, in-depth podcasts, books, and the like, almost all of us can get through this pandemic with <5 minutes a day of COVID-19 specific- and related- news. Unless it’s your professional job, more than a few minutes is just unsatisfying mental masturbation — better for your health to turn off the news and actually masturbate!


We are social creatures! There are more solitary creatures, like wolves and sharks, and more hive-minded creatures, including many insects, such as bees and ants. Of course, there are humans on both extremes of the social spectrum. However, in general, most of us want a balance of social and alone time; all of us just prefer a little more of one of the other. This situation — especially as it extends well into 2020 — shouldn’t make us all lone wolves staying at home. The year may not bring many opportunities for large community barbecues, massive birthday parties, or other big gatherings. And while many businesses and local libraries may reopen soon, it may be months before we can return to museums, concerts, or other crowded spaces. 2020 may bring the strangest Thanksgiving in decades (not least because of the election weeks before).

But the situation presents an opportunity. Will this pandemic continue to spread? Certainly. But can we maintain our health — our mental, spiritual, social, and, therefore, our immunological health — while slowing the spread of the virus and simultaneously strengthening a few quality social connections? I believe and hope we can.

If we let news, screen time, notifications and headlines dominate our lives, we’ll further lose our humanity to emotionless electronics and mindless media. In that case, the harm to our minds — nay, us as a species — will be far greater than any strain of virus. However, if we use the news media as a quick method to stay informed, and social media as an electronic tool to continue and enrich our social connections with loved ones and coworkers, we’ll come out of this period in human history stronger because of it.

Slightly off-topic addendums:

1: I’m an introvert, and even I know social isolation is generally bad!

This post is written by a strongly introverted person, and one with a rare personality type. I tested myself with the Myers-Briggs tests a few months ago, as I thought I’d done so in the past, but had actually only taken other kinds of personality tests. I was not surprised, but quite amused, to find that depending on the test and data population used, I am usually in the single rarest personality type, with about 1% of the population: INFJ. Two thirds of us are female, making a male INFJ all the more rare! But the test did surprise me, although I “felt” the outcome coming while answering so many quick multiple choice questions about social situations and values: I’m only about 60-65% introverted. Does that mean I should ideally balance my awake time as such? I hardly think so. But where I thought I’d be quite content only spending an hour or two with other humans during the day, the tests nudged me to realize that’s not quite true: I love focused, one-on-one social time with other individuals, and enjoy time in group situations; while I’d prefer less than half of my day to be social, I should ‘challenge’ myself to grow more in this arena. It might seem strange to consider this as a goal to pursue this year, during a pandemic and what might amount to a global economic depression (and who knows what else), but I reiterate…

Social isolation is bad, and is not our goal with distancing!

2: Naming laws: “Stay at Home” vs. “Shelter in Place” vs. “Lockdown” (or “Quarantine”)

Let’s clarify a phrase inappropriately used regarding the current pandemic: “Shelter in place.” As the words imply, the situation/order signifies a pressing urgency to immediately seek shelter in the exact and specific location you presently find yourself. SHELTER IN PLACE, RIGHT NOW! This directive is usually an excellent idea, and one to be used for hours, usually, in situations like terrorist or other physical attacks, shootings, nuclear threat, or for earthquakes and certain other natural disasters. California’s state government is thus misusing the term.

If the winds were blowing east, and the actual city of Pittsburgh sneezed up a large, physical, literal cloud of airborne viral droplets, New York City’s government would be right to issue a temporary SHELTER-IN-PLACE-IMMEDIATELY! order. We are not in that situation, nor are we likely ever to be with such a viral threat. If someone sneezes near you individually, you certainly have the social right to act as if in the shelter-in-place situation: yell, duck for cover a safe distance away (upwind, ideally), pray, swear, not necessarily in that order. Give the current situation, most of us will understand. But please don’t get angry or make the individual feel bad; in all likelihood, they simply forgot, weren’t being mindful, or really, really had to sneeze and couldn’t hold it. We’ve all been there. (Granted, there are some people in recent weeks acting foolish, often our youth.)

Other state governments seem about to take similar measures while using a different wording for the order: “stay home, stay healthy,” or potentially “stay at home.” This makes far more sense than the more immediate, scary “shelter in place.” This new way of life might initially last for only a few weeks or months, but these periods will probably re-occur over the next year or two. And they will absolutely re-occur this century, whether via viruses or other biological causes. Stay-at-home (with or without the word “order”) sounds less urgent and immediate (because it is), but also less scary, because it should be. It’s also far more likely to both a) be followed for longer periods of time, and therefore b) be implemented into our societal and cultural fabric.

The same issue stands with the word “quarantine” or “lockdown” phrase. It conjures images, at least in my mind, of Hollywood-style scenarios with men-in-Hazmat-suits disinfecting an area, and armed guards just outside them so none escape, while ‘healthy’ persons in the quarantine zone are treated as if they’ll soon become infected anyway. Quarantine is an important word, one with which we must all become intimate this year. If you are showing relevant symptoms during a pandemic, you should absolutely place yourself on quarantine!

In quarantine, those acceptable grocery store trips and neighborhood walks? No longer acceptable until you’re healthy and/or out of the full incubation-symptom-shedding periods. If you live alone, have someone else get your groceries and drop them off at your doorstep. You even want to distance yourself from your immediate household/family members, because while you cannot eliminate transmission of the virus to them, you can at least minimize transmission of viral particles, reducing their own risk. Going even further, some agencies even recommend that if anyone in the household is sick, no one should leave for regular walks or grocery store trips. Quarantine is lockdown — and both are far more serious than “stay at home.”

The quarantine situation, which hopefully, should last no longer than two weeks, severely restricts the individual to the home, far more than “stay at home.” The quarantine/lockdown scenario is anti-freedom, anti-libertarian, anti-individual to preserve the health of society as a whole. No wonder this kind of strict restriction action was much more severe (and arguably, in some sense, inhumane) in a country like China; but these restrictions do not play out well in American culture, especially for more than week or two. They also do not play out well for large groups of Americans, even in urban environments; New York City*3 notwithstanding. We value our freedom too highly, unless this year represents a massive cultural shift towards a we-will-do-what-is-necessary-for-the-health-of-the-colony philosophy, like that among some highly urban areas, many Asian countries (which also tend to be highly urban), or even insect colonies. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that happening just yet in this country.

To review:

  • Shelter-in-place is the most restrictive, immediate order/rule. It should last hours or a day or two at most.
  • Quarantine/Lockdown are also extremely restrictive, and sustained for a few short weeks while individuals recover and heal.
  • Stay-at-home orders are more restrictive than regular daily life, but generally allow for grocery (or other necessary) trips and recreational walks in the immediate neighborhood. (If the population is too lackadaisical following these orders, severity or penalties will be increased until we comply.) Stay at home orders are also sustainable for weeks and months at a time. Sadly, they may become a new, recurring way of life.



  1. Over-cleaning and over-sterilizing might inactivate the virus, but brings its own risks

Ever hear that kids on “dirty” farms have better respiratory and immune systems than city kids, especially those whose parents over-sanitize everything? Many health aspects of living in urban environments are terrible — we don’t need to make things worse by over-sanitizing everything.

Occasional sterilization of surfaces brings benefits, but also risks. What risks? Any anti-microbial cleaner (bleach, hydrogen peroxide, wipes, etc.) never destroys 100% of microbes, always 99.9x%, which increases the possible evolution of anti-microbial-resistant microbes. Thus the spread of anti-bacterial-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. Know what’s worse than a global pandemic by a novel virus? A global pandemic by a novel virus resistant to traditional anti-viral cleaning agents!

It’s unlikely, but if a few billion people over-sanitize their surfaces regularly, it’s possible.


*1 Indeed: From NRPA’s “Keeping a Safe Social Distance in Parks and on Trails During the COVID-19 Pandemic” : “As reported on Axios on March 16, “Steve Silvestro, a pediatrician in Bethesda, Md., advises against most playdates, especially indoors or on playgrounds. Outdoor playdates with one or two friends are probably OK for now, but not in crowded places. ‘We need to spend time with our own germs and only our own germs,’ Silvestro wrote in a blog post that’s been making the rounds among D.C.-area parents. ‘If you’re still set on getting together, here’s my suggestion: Pick your best friend family,’ he wrote. ‘If you can trust them and they can trust you, agree that your families will only hang out with each other. This way you’re at least minimizing possible exposure.’”” [emphasis mine]

*2 Of course, this is likely to be mostly ignored in rural environments.

*3 A casual understanding of the history of this city, initially named “New Netherlands,” leads one of the truth of the situation. Although full of Americans, the city’s culture is less American than a unique Dutch-European-Global-American blend. NYC-born-and-raised residents often have trouble connecting with the shared culture among the rest of the country (things which political independents, liberals and conservatives all share in common). Think: cars, road trips, individuality, suburban spaces, freedom of movement, etc. One cultural aspect NYCs share with all Americans is consumerism, affecting most of the industrialized world.



2020 March: Posted