With the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 so as to protect healthcare systems from being overwhelmed by a rapid spike in cases, people are being asked to suppress the natural human instinct of connecting with each other.
As the Minnis administration makes policies and pronouncements with social distancing at its apex, it is important for government to be guided by science on the potential sociological impacts of social distancing, so as to ensure that the country’s most vulnerable groupings are protected from unintended consequences of this pandemic response.
A recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggests that the elderly may be more prone to negative effects of social isolation, and this finding is particularly relevant today since persons are being encouraged to avoid close interaction with the elderly in order to protect them from potential COVID-19 complications for which they are especially susceptible.
Experts are unable to say how long COVID-19 might present a public health emergency, but long-term social isolation is a risk factor for both mental and physical illness.
Social distancing can also have the unintended effect of straining an already arguably weak culture of community and social cooperation in our country, the kind of cooperation necessary to fight a pandemic because adhering to the social distancing call is not only about protecting ourselves and our families, but protecting strangers and those we may not ordinarily be concerned about.
Such a scenario can result in immigrant populations and other segments of society who routinely fall on the outskirts of social acceptance being at even greater risks in a pandemic, as classical prejudices morph into the kind of distancing that robs these groupings of information and resources necessary to protect themselves and others.
Also in need of protection is our nation’s children, who due to social distancing policies have been released from schools all over the country, but who in many cases are likely being subjected to improper supervision and otherwise unsafe environments due to a lack of access to adequate supportive care on the part of working parents.
As social distancing becomes a buzz word in the COVID-19 response in The Bahamas, public health and government officials should be careful to appreciate the kinds of connotations that might be put to social distancing, and how the same can translate into creating a kind of stigma for COVID-19 sufferers that can prove counterproductive to efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
When HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — became a pressing public health concern in the 1980s, intense stigma and hysteria pushed people to refuse to get tested or to reveal their status for fear of being ostracized, alienated or harmed.
Indeed, within hours after government announced that New Providence recorded its first COVID-19 case, names and photos of the supposed patient were widely circulated on social media, along with speculations about relatives who may or may not be infected.
Given the impact of social media pressure and fears of becoming a pariah to family, friends and co-workers, persons who may develop symptoms they fear are connected to COVID-19 might be reluctant to disclose the same to medical professionals, to self-quarantine, to change their social routines or to call in sick, all to avoid being tagged as having “that thing”.
This can further complicate public health efforts to slow a potential spread of the disease.
Additionally, we must consider in urging social distancing that there are groups in our society who cannot easily or readily practice this response mechanism, and who must in turn be protected.
These groups include those with limited mobility, those in need of care for chronic illnesses and those in group homes, detention facilities, prison or assisted living facilities, who cannot practice social distancing as can other segments of society.
Government and the private sector should enlist the expertise of the country’s mental health professionals and social scientists who can provide guidance on how to adopt social distancing policies that protect vulnerable groups and encourage community cooperation.
We can fight the COVID-19 pandemic together, but togetherness in the context of social distancing should be intentionally and thoughtfully fleshed out for the public, so that we practice the same in a way that brings about help and not undue harm.