Social distancing and COVID-19: We’ll stay together by staying apart | Opinion

March 17, 2020 6:30 am

Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

By Stacy Gallin

These are unprecedented times in society. The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly spreading across the globe. We are being inundated with media coverage regarding the trajectory of the virus and how to contain it.

Misinformation and questions abound, leading to the only things that seem to be spreading faster than COVID 19: fear and panic. However, while this particular challenge may be unlike anything we have experienced before, we can still learn from history and use the principles of bioethics as a moral framework to guide us through this crisis.

The best way to protect the future is to remember the past, and in order to do that we must act now. This is a statement that I use in every one of my lectures. Lately, we have heard a lot about the concept of “social distancing” and how it can be used to “flatten the curve.” While these terms and charts may be new to many people, those in the field of public health and epidemiology have researched this for years.

The flu pandemic of 1918 and the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic are both examples of instances throughout history in which communities that took decisive measures to slow the spread of disease early on fared much better than those that did not.

This is not an isolated opinion or a political strategy. It is factual information that can be found in history books and textbooks, alike. As a society, we would do well to heed George Santayana’s famous quote, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again,” and act now to make a difference in the outcome of this pandemic.

What does it mean to act now? For most of the United States, the current strategy recommended by health officials is social distancing, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gathering, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet) from others when possible.”

The purpose of social distancing is to reduce close physical interactions with people within communities so that the spread of the virus will be contained.

The more people can refrain from coming into contact with others, the less of a chance the virus will be transmitted. This will in turn help to “flatten the curve,” a term that refers to a chart created to show the dire consequences of health care systems becoming overwhelmed by a large influx of COVID-19 cases spiking in a short period of time.

These consequences include everything from a shortage of medical provisions – everything from basic supplies such as gloves and masks to life-saving equipment like ventilators and ICU equipment – to a lack of health care providers to care for patients in need.

These patients are not just those suffering from COVID-19 either; they are people who may have had a heart attack or been in a car accident because while this particular crisis may be new, the overburdened health care system in the U.S is not.

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Social distancing may be our best chance to flatten the curve and relieve the stress on hospitals and also to buy time for scientists and researchers to come up with treatments or vaccines.

COVID-19 is a socially transmitted virus. It occurs within the framework of society; it will not thrive and spread without a community of human beings in which to exist.

Despite those who have tried to claim otherwise, the virus knows no racial, cultural, religious, or socioeconomic boundaries. COVID-19, like any pandemic, does not live in a vacuum. It could have started anywhere and it can reach anywhere.

This is the reason why social distancing works. Ironically, the same can be said about humankind and our responsibility to one another.

We are social creatures. We need each other to survive and thrive. There is one other phrase that I use in all my lectures: As members of humankind, we have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, but that also means we have the responsibility to treat others with dignity and respect. This statement, like the COVID-19 virus, knows no racial, cultural, religious, or socioeconomic boundaries.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis, but we have a moral framework to guide us founded on the bioethical principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.

The young and healthy must do what they can to protect the vulnerable members of society. We need to support our health care system – workers on the front lines caring for the sick and scientists and researchers who require time to develop treatments.

We must pull together as global citizens and members of humankind, and the best way to do that is to physically stay apart.

Stacy Gallin is the director of the Center for Human Dignity in Bioethics, Health, and the Holocaust at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. She also is the founding director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust in Freehold, N.J., and the co-chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics in Haifa, Israel.

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