So far in this pandemic we have lost an estimated 137,000 people in the United States to coronavirus. Husbands and wives will reach across the bed tonight to find their spouse gone. Brothers and sisters will think of something funny to send to their sibling and realize with a sinking feeling they can’t. Parents are missing children and children parents. Friends will be stuck with that question they always meant to ask that will just go unanswered. Grandchildren especially are mourning grandparents. 

There are people right now wishing desperately for a hand to hold or a hug that they will never get because that person is dead. Some of these people who died spent their final days and even weeks alone, without friends or family or the benefit of clergy because of rules or even laws that kept them segregated from all of us until their end.

This terrible disease has hurt us deeply, yet it seems that what we have to do is so simple. We need only stay home, wear a mask when we need to go out, socially distance, stay away from groups and avoid non-household members and lives could be saved. It’s so simple, but many people find this hard to do. Our nation asked our grandparents to face Nazi machine guns and all we have to do is watch Netflix.

Are resisters just selfish?

What’s wrong with us? What makes people unable to do such simple things to save a life? Selfishness? Are Americans so obsessed with freedom that they can’t even be slightly inconvenienced to save a life? Considering everyone is at risk you would think people would comply at least out of concern for their own safety, but many don’t. Why?

It’s likely some of these non-conformers are simply selfish people with their heads in the sand who prefer to think there isn’t really a pandemic so that they can go on their merry way. But I don’t think they are the majority. We are people with bodies and we want and need physical contact with each other, yet we are living under measures that could have gotten some children removed from their parents if we had attempted them in a home environment a mere eight months ago.  People need people.

Besides the obvious fear of death, what is it about the thought of contracting coronavirus or of our loved ones contracting it that we fear most? Pain, isolation and fear of lacking our basic needs? Perhaps even more than our own suffering we are terrified by the idea of helplessly watching our loved ones endure these things. If our methods to eradicate this virus create the very terrible things we are hoping to evade – pain isolation and need – how have we gained?

‘Don’t hug grandma’ may harm her anyway

“Don’t hug gramma or you’ll never get to hug her again!” makes perfect sense while the precaution is a temporary measure, but after a certain amount of time has passed the argument becomes circular and begins to make less and less sense. This safety measure changes from a reasonable temporary sacrifice for the sake of future greater good to a kind of meaningless torture of all those involved.

Exactly when that point of absurdity is reached is going to be very personal. Exactly when it’s okay to hug gramma is something that needs to be negotiated between family members and on the most local level, involving grandma’s own opinion first! Perhaps with some consultation with her doctor – but not necessarily. If she wants a hug and her loved ones want to hug her why should the doctor or the governor be involved if all those people are willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences of their behavior?

The answer, of course is that grandma could die, and her loved ones could become vectors for disease, causing more deaths. But other kinds of disease are allowed to proliferate from human contact because we see people’s rights as more important than eradicating disease. We do not forcibly prevent the HIV positive from sexual contact for example. Why is Covid 19 so different from other diseases in terms of basic human rights?

What happened in the other recent epidemic

In the fall of 2018, following one of the worst years for flu in recent times, the US Centers for Disease Control estimated that 80,000 people had died of the infection the previous winter, while 45,000 had recovered from it. That year, apart from encouragement to get vaccinated, there were zero public measures taken to prevent transmission. There was no countdown of deaths. No state by state tracking. No shut-downs. Were those people who died of influenza simply expendable? Did they not count? Did they not also have people who loved and mourned them?

Perhaps we could argue that we should have done more that year to protect those vulnerable people. Some might say it was only greed that kept the country rolling along that year, just like its “greedy people” now who oppose the shut-downs.  It was likely that you and I transmitted influenza to vulnerable people that year, and very likely people died due to our just living and breathing and going about our lives.

Very likely we hugged certain grandmas that year and when they died of influenza there was no blame or finger pointing. There was just the idea that she was old and susceptible. But she was hugged and loved and visited again and again until she died. Compare that with today when physical contact and visiting is not allowed. Is that the sort of end you want for anyone you love: total isolation? Is it right to deprive people of basic human needs like contact with loved ones, and even last rites? Is that how we want to live?

If our measures to eradicate a disease actually create all the bad things that we fear the disease will bring, even without the disease, we can be sure our ethic has changed from the “do no harm” of the Hippocratic Oath to something more like “eradicate coronavirus, whatever the cost.” Is that good policy? Shouldn’t the good of people be considered first before impossible goals like eradicating viruses?

People are more than infection risks

Right now we are faced with the dilemma of compliance with rules dictated by experts for our own good. But the measures seem to be circular: Don’t hug gramma or you’ll never hug her again. Don’t go out or go on vacation or go to an art exhibit or lecture or sing songs with your friends or have a dinner party or a barbeque or you’ll never do those things again!

Do we really want to live in a world where we are taught to be suspicious of others, especially strangers, who are seen as dangerous and possible vectors of disease and death? People certainly are vectors for the transmission of disease but they surely are much more than that too.

Many of us are mourning the loss of human contact with loved ones, of acquaintances and even strangers, but not because of death. And now, because of masks, we deprived of even seeing the faces of other humans. Think what it means for the hearing impaired (30 percent of all Americans) to be denied lip reading as a means to communication.

Parents and grandparents are divided from their children and grandchildren – for fear death might divide them from their children and grandchildren. Friends avoid friends out of love for their friends, and you might say this is good and beautiful and kind. Perhaps so, for a time. But if it lasts indefinitely we have merely made regular life a kind of living death for everyone.

Masks and social distancing may be necessary sometimes with some people, but they come with a high social cost when they are the rule, everywhere and all the time. Seeing people’s faces is integral to building relationships of trust, and I am not sure America can stand a further breakdown in trust.

The risks of keeping our distance

Because of our new fascination with the internet we were already suffering from isolation and loneliness before the pandemic. Keeping our physical distance impairs friendship, and while trying to make the internet fill in the gaps of our social needs might enrich tech giants, it impoverishes the majority of us because human life must be embodied life. Depression and anxiety are skyrocketing with one federal helpline for emotional distress reporting a 1,000 % increase in calls.

Faces, body language and physical interaction, human connection cannot be just cancelled without serious negative repercussions. We are not just our brains. We need people: both individually and as a nation. The fear of contagion can breed xenophobia, hostility, polarization, segregation and tribalism and is connected to a rise in totalitarianism. We cannot just end all in-person sharing, thinking that using the internet for all our needs will ever really be satisfying to the whole person.

Not everyone who avoids masks or dares to break social distancing rules is a selfish, terrible person. They might just be suffering more acutely than you are from too much Co2 or too little human connection. Please be kind; everyone is suffering.

Worry pulls all the pain and suffering we fear might be in our future into our present life. The truth is, our entire country is suffering because of people who are gone from our lives, not because they died but because of our efforts to keep people from dying. Quarantine is do-able for a time, but it becomes counterproductive at some point, and as time goes on the most socially vulnerable will begin to crack.

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Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.