Social Distancing: What We’ve Learned

In watching the riots of the past week, it is clear that since this has not happened at this scale since the Rodney King Riots, and many police killings have happened since, that the changed variable was the pandemic and the psychological strain of social distancing. These riots are as much a lashing out of stress and anxiety over isolation as anything else. That can be in large part attributed to the fact that it was biologists, alone, without the help of sociologists or psychologists, who designed the social distancing guidelines. There were ways to avoid such a strong and painful response to the distancing that were not implemented and that would have avoided the myriad of maladies we are now facing approaching June 2020.

Social distancing has succeeded but far less than it could have. The principal reason is that people are stuck with small nuclear families for a long time. The biologists who don’t study psychology or sociology were not astute enough in the psych and social sciences to create a tenable solution. They said “stay home, we’re scientists”. Yes, but they don’t know how to do that. Why did people without the background in human behavior draft guidelines for affecting that behavior. From the outset, it was clearly going to be a trainwreck. The guidelines they wrote were never going to work because that’s not how humans work. You also can’t just have mental health crisis lines because that’s not how psych therapy works. Talk therapy without environmental changes in the patient’s life is almost useless. Talk therapy is great for coping with the effects of past trauma, not ongoing traumatic events. When I authored a pamphlet on treating acute panic and anxiety attacks, the last step was to address the material cause of the attack, if possible.

The way social distancing should have happened to have engendered more compliance would have been to have created cells of ten to twenty people, all tested prior to enclosing the cell, and appointing a person or a few people in the cell to be responsible for testing the members. This fixes two huge issues. The first and obvious, it lowers the isolation anxiety greatly and thus the propensity to breakdown and eventually give up and leave. Secondly, it brings the testing to the people rather than requiring the people to go to the testing. If the testing is in the communal campus then it’s a short walk or text message to get tested. Presumably, with the newer, shorter, tests, it could be designed in a way that laypeople could read a simple positive or negative result without having to understand the science underpinning it.

Furthermore, the government should have supplied the restaurants and other retail outlets with cubicles and modified air circulation systems that circulates air vertically rather than horizontally. They gave people who know how to run a retail food business the responsibility to design architectural changes. They should have guided the businesses on how to spend their money. These restaurants cannot survive at half capacity and so many are going to go under. The first priority of the money should not have been payroll but physical adaptations to the locations. These places can probably return to 100% capacity with the proper engineering. This is all important not only for the economy but because the less difficult the sacrifices are, the more willing the people will be to comply. Furthermore, in the communal cells, the communal galleys should have a restaurant-like appearance to give the feeling of normalcy and so should the communal gyms, pools, and everything else.

The sad fact is that the social distancing guidelines were so poorly thought out by people who did not have the psychological or social background to make them. Biologists should have been on the committee because they have expertise but they should not have been the primary drafters of an attempt to modify human behavior. The fact is the failure to get compliance was the fault of not even having a strategy to get compliance or design a system that would not cause high levels of anxiety on the people within it. They just told people to go to small nuclear families and they’d fix the psych problems with band-aid solutions. That was never going to work. Going forward and next time, a fuller and more psychologically scientific strategy should be pursued and implemented.

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