Opinion: The case for social distancing

Lukas Kenney

To unite as a country by distancing ourselves from each other seems paradoxical, but that’s exactly what we must do amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously, COVID-19 (the disease caused by the current strain of coronavirus) is spread through human interaction. The simple concept of “social distancing” has been introduced to help limit personal contact, and therefore stifle the spread of the disease.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its website for suggestions regarding social distancing.

“Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities,” wrote the CDC on March 15. “Therefore, CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”

President Trump took the CDC’s recommendation one step further in a briefing at the White House on Monday, where he suggested that for at least the next two weeks, Americans should avoid groups of more than 10 people. Locally, Mayor of Kansas City Quinton Lucas has banned most gatherings of 10 or more in the city.

Guidelines like these are the reason UMKC has canceled face-to-face coursework for the remainder of the semester. They’re the reason businesses are closing and major events are being called off, like Coachella, March Madness and virtually all sporting events, even religious gatherings. The cancelations help enforce social distancing.

But beyond avoiding large, scheduled gatherings, social distancing also calls for people to simply limit movement, stay at home whenever possible, and remain six feet from other people when an interaction is necessary. 

The fact that these suggestions – if adhered to – will drastically affect the day-to-day lives of every American raises an important question: what obligation do you have to follow these guidelines?

The temptation, especially for the young and healthy, is to carry on as if nothing has changed. Life feels much easier if we ignore the coronavirus chaos that has erupted all around us.

But there does exist an obligation to socially distance ourselves from one another. Social distancing is not about individual welfare but rather the welfare of the collective. We, as individuals, have an opportunity to literally save lives in the community. It’s not about you, it’s about those you could potentially infect, especially the elderly and immunocompromised. 

There are those who claim individual action won’t do much and that coronavirus will spread regardless of how we behave. This is, to some extent, true. However, social distancing is not about stopping the virus in its tracks, it’s about slowing the spread and “flattening the curve.”

Graph depicts what the outbreak will look like with and without protective measures. (vox.com)

The “curve” refers to the projected number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a period of time. The curve takes on different shapes depending on the virus’s infection rate.

One of the major problems with a viral disease like COVID-19 is that – if left unchecked – it will spread at an exponential rate, resulting in a peak in the curve. The peak represents a large number of individuals getting infected over a short period of time. If this happens, the American health care system will exceed capacity, and those infected by the disease will be unable to receive proper treatment.

This is exactly what happened in Italy, where confirmed cases of COVID-19 doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 between March 11 and March 15. The country’s health care infrastructure was overwhelmed, which, in part, contributed to Italy’s unusually high COVID-19 death rate, which was reported by PBS to be over 7% or double the global average.

Protective measures like social distancing help prevent a peak in coronavirus infections by slowing down the rate at which people get sick. This is what’s referred to as “flattening the curve.” Ideally, a flatter curve allows the healthcare system to treat infected individuals with proper care.

To carry on as if a potentially fatal disease is not spreading throughout the United States is selfish. Each and every individual can make decisions to help curb the transmission of COVID-19. And as socially responsible and morally conscious individuals, we all have an obligation to do so.

Please, practice social distancing. Don’t contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Sacrifice your social outings, overlook that $50 flight to Florida, and consider the elderly and those with higher health risks. Help flatten the curve and help save lives.