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The Coronavirus and Social Distancing: Avoiding a Relationship Pandemic

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Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. Rahm Emanuel

Just when we worried that our broken and divided relationships could not get much worse or more consequential, along comes the coronavirus and the imperative for social distancing. Social distancing: Isn’t that what we have been doing for the last several decades? This new imperative to further disassociate comes at a time when the decline in our relationships at home, work, in politics and faith fuel a record level of loneliness, division and even deaths of despair. At a time when technology-enabled in-home entertainment, working-from-home and social media tempt us to bypass human interaction, we now face a medical crisis that will force us to forego many forms of human contact. The last thing we need is for the coronavirus pandemic to trigger a “relationship” pandemic.

So, what are we to do? While we have no idea how long this pandemic might last, we can be assured it will shape our culture and our approach to relational interaction for years to come. The consequences of this relational disruption and attendant cultural shift can have large and lasting costs.

It is important that we consider these risks and costs as we assess the path forward in dealing with this global medical crisis.

Social Distancing to Mitigate a Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus has now been officially designated a Pandemic by the World Health Organization. While we can debate whether we have been over- or under-reacting, the impact on stock markets around the world, travel, working-from-home, conferences, school closings and associated child-care issues, sporting events, worship services and most any other form of gathering and meeting face-to-face is undeniable. The rate of its spread and the associated mortality rate point a to a near-perfect storm of chaos and destruction. Even if the virus itself turns out to be less destructive than we thought, it has already disrupted our society in serious ways.

Social distancing is our primary defense for combating coronavirus. It is defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC): remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible. Terms like social distancing, self-quarantine, shelter-in-place are new terms for an old idea: self-imposed isolation.

As a result, people at all levels face tough decisions: whether to cancel meetings, celebrations, conferences, school, close the office, postpone or cancel vacations. Some of the decisions are so small – and yet so large. Do I shake hands, hug, fist-bump, elbow-bump, foot-bump? How close do I sit to someone – friend or stranger? Do I suspend visits to the lonesome elderly in nursing homes? What about social gatherings, movies, dinner or church? How much hand sanitizer do I order? Toilet paper? Water?

These decisions will become even tougher as the number of diagnosed cases grow and death and despair spread.

The Risks and Cost of Social Distancing to Our Longer-Term Health

We face a clear and immediate danger of contracting the coronavirus. And yet, social distancing exacerbates relational decline that has already induced profound consequences and unmeasured cost.

In recent years we have been on a path that in retrospect we could have aptly called social distancing. As I shared in my essay last year, “Our Great Ungathering Is Killing Us,” we were already gathering less across a wide-variety of venues: bars, sporting events, houses of worship, bank branches, retail stores, the office, at movies, with customers, neighbors and even with family at meals. Less gathering leads to less community.

Yes, we have ways to stay in touch electronically via text, email, videoconferencing, and social media, but it is not the same. In fact, many studies indic­ate that the more time we spend on social media, the less happy, less empathetic and more envious we are.

The very act of meeting face-to-face, making eye-contact and physically touching nourishes us – but exposes us to the coronavirus. We all know of the infant mortality research that shows babies deprived of physical touch experience development limitations. It is no different for adults. The Atlantic quotes Tiffany Field, the founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in describing the power of physical touch:

any pressure or movement on the skin helps increase the activity of the Vagus nerve, which connects to every major organ in the human body. Touch from another human “slows down the heart. It goes to the GI tract and helps digestion. It helps our emotional expressions—our facial expressions and our vocal expressions. It enhances serotonin, the natural antidepressant in our system.” That vagal activity can also lower a body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol; cortisol is known to harm the “natural killer cells” that can fight viral, bacterial, and cancer cells.

Field concludes that as people are now especially stressed over the consequence of the virus, they have even greater need of these valuable effects of touch, now that they are afraid to hug or shake hands as usual.

It is hard to say whether our relationship crisis is a garden-variety epidemic or a pending pandemic – but our devolvement to a “relationship-less” culture is a destructive problem that has quantifiable consequences. In my essay, “Straight Talk About Relationships, Community – and Faith,” the numbers tell us our relationship infrastructure is unraveling: more people live alone, more people are single, more divorces, more single-parent households, fewer siblings, fewer close friends, more people working remote, greater political animus, less people attending church and on and on.

The consequences are even more disturbing. We face an epidemic of loneliness that has increased 65% in the last decade. This rise in loneliness and relational despair are associated with grim outcomes. Here is how I described it in my essay:

We have invented ghastly new terms like “Deaths of Despair” to chronicle an increase of drug-related deaths of 108 percent, alcohol-related deaths by 69 percent and suicides of 35 percent among 18 to 34 year-olds between 2007 and 2017. Loneliness, which has the same mortality effect as smoking and twice that of obesity, has jumped 65 percent in the last decade. As smoking declined and healthier eating has become more popular, isolation has stepped in and filled the mortality void. Overall life expectancy declined for the first time since the early 1900s. John Ortberg’s words were never truer, “We would be better to eat Twinkies together than to eat broccoli alone.”

Our growing disconnect might not qualify as a “Relational Pandemic” but it is deadly, spreading and there will be no vaccine. The coronavirus and our relationship-virus serve up a deadly and destructive combination.

A Time to Do “Hard Things” to Sustain Health and Well-being

We all know from our own history that struggle and difficult times also usher in the potential for break-through opportunities. To face this challenge and to cultivate the associated opportunities will require a level of intention and focus that our often purpose-less and attention-deficit society have been sorely missing.

We get plenty of instruction and encouragement regarding dealing with the coronavirus – wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, avoid human contact.

But how about instruction and encouragement for dealing with our relationship loss in a world of social distancing? What can we do to cultivate relationships in a time when we especially need support? Here are three intentions to consider.

1. Re-purpose yourself for doing “hard” things. Everything starts with intention. Our challenge is to muster the initiative to take-on the hard things in our future the way those before us took on war, famine, the Great Depression. For many, “convenient and easy” has become an end of its own. Whether it is great appliances, power tools, medical breakthroughs (especially pills), Amazon delivery, air travel, smart phones and computers – a huge effort has gone into making things less difficult. In so many areas of our lives, we have allowed the “easy button” to replace the “meaning button.” The coronavirus appears to have no “easy button,” but it has great pote