Commentary: We can’t let ‘social distancing’ lead all of us to social isolation

The Friday after Sept. 11, 2001, I took the Greyhound bus from Boston to New York city to check on my friends and family. The place I had called home for 25 years was still reeling from the attacks, its residents in a state of traumatic shock. My mother took me to the local fire station, where a makeshift memorial had been created for the five firefighters they lost, including their captain. These types of memorials, filled with messages of love and peace, had sprung up all around the city.

The next day, we heard there was going to be a candlelight vigil that evening. At 6 p.m. we headed downstairs and joined up with small group of neighbors who had gathered on my mother’s corner. Together, we sang songs like “America” and “Imagine.” You could see dozens of similar, candle-lit gatherings on other street corners as far as the eye could see.

Sadly, it seems we need to experience this kind of mass tragedy to remind us of our common humanity. In times of crisis, most of us experience a deeply felt need to come together, to renew the social bonds that connect us all. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the city came together and, at least for a brief moment, we were Boston Strong.

Now we are facing a new crisis, a rapidly spreading global pandemic, and that emotional pull to come together is as strong as ever. But this particular challenge requires us to practice “social distancing.” At a time when we are frightened for ourselves and our more vulnerable friends, relatives, and neighbors, we have been asked to keep at least six feet from one another and avoid social gatherings.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is to make sure social distancing does not lead to widespread social isolation. According to Marc Lipsitch, Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the world's foremost experts on infectious diseases, “mitigating the impacts of social distancing is as important as social distancing.”

Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociologist at Rutgers University who has studied social ties in low income communities, says she prefers the term “physical distancing,” which underscores the importance of maintaining and strengthening networks of mutual support.

An informal survey and friends and family on Facebook shows that people are getting creative, often using technology to overcome physical distance. Many talked of connecting more frequently with friends and loved ones through text, email, and social media, as well as phone and video calls. On Sunday, our church held a remote service using Zoom and the Social Justice Action Committee met that way as well. One friend said a neighbor left a note on her door asking if she wanted to help form a support group on her block. Another hosted a 30-minute “loving-kindness” meditation using Zoom.

One post in particular caught my attention. A friend of mine from church said she heard about a group suggesting that everyone sing one chosen song at 6 p.m. each night from out of their window. The first song they chose was “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles. The song they have chosen for tonight is “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” by Bob Marley. I don’t know if this idea has caught on, but I plan to open up my window tonight with the hope that it has. I will do so also in the hope that we finally begin to understand how much we need one another, not just in a crisis, but all the time.

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