As the coronavirus spreads around the globe and here in the United States, many organizations and governments have begun to shut down or limit public gatherings. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump have cancelled political rallies; NCAA basketball games will be played without fans; the NBA has suspended its season after a player tested positive for the virus; and schools around the country have extended spring break or cancelled in-person classes. (These are among the most notable developments in the United States at the time of writing. There will likely be many more.) Generally speaking, people are being asked to limit their public exposure, for fear of spreading the virus, especially to vulnerable populations. The phrase “social distancing,” which describes these precautions designed to slow the pace of new infections, has entered into the public consciousness.
Social distancing is a logistical necessity as long as this coronavirus remains a threat. While completely stopping the spread of the virus may be impossible, social distancing helps prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients. In Italy, where the spread of the disease has been rapid, there have been serious discussions about medical triage practices that are both heartbreaking and infuriating. While medical professionals and government leaders debate the ethics of such an approach, we can do our part to avoid the necessity of such a discussion here in the United States by limiting our contact with others and taking other precautions.
As we face the spread of the virus here in the United States, it is important not to see social distancing as merely a form of self-insulation and protection from others who carry the virus, but also as a way to show care and concern to others by avoiding spreading the virus to others unintentionally. In spite of everything that we believe as a Church about closeness, accompaniment, and the importance of our physical presence–we believe, after all, in an incarnate God–in this case, social distancing is an expression of love and must be understood that way.
The danger of opposing views cannot be understated: many people, including Catholics, perhaps out of a misguided sense of what love requires are putting others at great risk by downplaying the seriousness of this threat. Fortunately, most of our bishops are wisely taking precautions. For example, Archbishop Etienne of Seattle made the right decision by limiting the celebration of public masses. Similarly, other bishops have dispensed with the obligation to attend Mass in their dioceses. It is only a matter of time before more have to make the same choice. Love of God does not mean putting others at risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness.
Social distancing also reminds us of the importance of our daily interactions with others. We often take for granted even the many secular activities that build up a local community–going to the library, buying coffee, playing sports–and these too may have to be suspended indefinitely. Think of local parish fish fries that will inevitably have to be cancelled as well, which for many parishes attract large groups of people from surrounding communities and are avenues of evangelization (not to mention important fundraisers). As much as one can joke about how we’ve already been practicing social distancing over the last five years, we still rely on at least these basic forms of social interaction for our own health and wellbeing. Perhaps when this threat of coronavirus is over, it will be a good time to think about community more intentionally. In the meantime, we will have to get by with even less than we’re used to.
Ironically, what has been one of means for social decline in recent years may become a godsend in these difficult times. I’m referring to social media, of course. I personally have highlighted how problematic social media is in disrupting healthy habits of prayer and community, but now is the time, I believe, to learn to practice social media with virtue. While many of us still use social media in a self-centered or mindless way–regrettably, I have grown increasingly addicted to Twitter this political season and in light of the coronavirus–it is possible to elevate these platforms to better, more loving ends and cross this physical chasm that separates us for a time.
Social media helps to facilitate forms of closeness that simply were not possible even 20 years ago. We can easily check in with each other, videochat with one another, send expressions of sympathy and concern to one another. I have no personal expertise in this matter but one can easily think of online bible studies and extended video conversations with the elderly. Maybe now is the time to enter more deeply into the spiritual life and take an online class, such as offered for free by the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Christopher Lamb highlights some other potential benefits offered by social media. Certainly, I would welcome any other ideas you might have in the comments.
Unfortunately, social distancing also has real-world impact, including the loss of work for people who depend on now-cancelled sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings, not to mention all the workers at restaurants, stores, and other places of business that are now susceptible to decrease in consumer spending. It is difficult at this stage to imagine just how deep the impact will be on our economy and in our homes. Now more than ever, we must think of the people in our neighborhoods who have kept the engines of our community running, but may now have difficulty providing for themselves and their families. Our Christian imagination must find new and creative ways to express solidarity with them and help them in this time of need.
Social distancing puts us at risk of thinking only of ourselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. Listen to your pastors, medical professionals, and the relevant government authorities where you live. I believe we will find that despite our isolation, breaking out of an individualistic approach to health reveals the necessity of both social distancing and spiritual–and sometimes virtual–closeness.