The extent of the damage from the COVID crisis is slowly being realized as we sift through the wreckage of these last five months that extends beyond the tragic loss of life. Extensive economic and financial losses are the predicted consequence of lockdowns, business shutdowns, quarantines, and travel/work restrictions. We soon could see a tsunami of “ripple effects,” such as a recession or depression.
But more worrisome to me than COVID and its economic ramifications is the change in how we relate to and view our neighbor. The public health messaging voiced by government leaders and amplified by the media on social distancing has had the unintended consequence of making us quite wary of one another. We now see everyone from strangers to family members as possible carriers of contagious, frightful illness. We also worry we might unwittingly contaminate them with the virus. For many, particularly our elderly, the result has been a numbing isolation: a separation from humanity, no meaningful contact with anyone other than caregivers. For our young people who were already wedded to hand-held electronic devices and modes of communication cut-off from truly human interaction, these months of COVID captivity have only made their flight more pronounced.
The unrelenting social conditioning of staying six-feet apart from other human beings at all costs may not be reversed so easily. In March, Arthur Brooks, best-selling author and Harvard professor, wrote, “While public health officials are no doubt correct that social distancing is necessary, as a social scientist I would add that it is a necessary evil.” His words were prophetic, and like all prophecies, serve as a warning. With a vaccine approaching and new testing and treatments in place, it may be time now to discuss the extent social distancing has frayed the connective tissue that binds us together as a human family.
Today if the parable of the Good Samaritan were told, would some react by praising the wisdom of the descendants of Aaron and Levi who passed by, and criticize the reckless disregard for safety that the kind traveler displayed in treating the wounds of the fallen man? Would the Good Samaritan be ridiculed for his compassion?
At a time when Americans are suffering from financial and social setbacks not seen in nearly a century, expressions of compassion will be more vital than ever. The elderly need company and comforting. The dying need to be accompanied. The sick need to be visited. The homeless need to have their dignity affirmed by our hands-on care. Founts of encouragement, empathy and solidarity need to flow. There are things only humans can do, that only human touch can heal. Kisses, hugs and handshakes make a sweet difference in life, as do all the social connections for which Zoom is no worthy substitute. A generalized fear of death cannot turn into a systematic fear of life.
Social distancing is a necessary evil. But it cannot remain a way of life. After all of the sacrifices that have been asked of Americans, and all that has been suffered, it would be cruel irony that as a vaccine is developed to destroy the coronavirus, no preparations are underway for a return to true communion with our neighbors, particularly those in need. Why aren’t our places of worship, and our politicians, talking about this? The elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled and other vulnerable groups need us in their lives – particularly the hurting or newly-hurting. We cannot just pass them by at a safe distance. Much has been said in the public square about the necessity of social distancing during a pandemic, and rightly so. It is time, however, to begin a full-fledged discussion of the collateral damage and unwelcome side effects of this practice, and the need to return as soon as practicable to modes of relationship that are time-honored and truly human, where love of neighbor casts out fear.