It’s almost surreal to admit how our daily lives have dramatically changed in the last few months due to the global spread for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. There are over 3,778,179 confirmed cases globally, more than 1.2 million+ cases in all 50 states within the United States, as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins University. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed over 73,000 deaths in the US caused by respiratory conditions or other complications (typically pneumonia) associated with COVID-19 infection. These numbers continue to rise minute by minute.
We also know our elderly (65+ years), homeless, uninsured, and immune-compromised populations are most vulnerable to this disease. Coronavirus is no “respecter of persons,” as it goes, attacking over 200+ countries and territories across the globe, according to experts. “Business as usual” is no longer order of day and for good reasons. COVID-19 is expected to be 2 to 3 times more contagious than seasonal flu, according to experts, and led to a peak of 6.9 million unemployment claims at the end of March—the highest in recent US history.
And though the President and many others allude to “returning to normal” in coming weeks, the data are clear. Now is not the time to rush and relax distancing practices, as it is one of our only weapons against this deadly disease. Instead, we must continue to #StayAtHome, follow the medical experts, and practice physical (not social) distancing.1 Early data suggest that people aren’t troubled by the “20-second hand washing rule” and some enjoy the flexibility that remote working provides. What’s wearing on people is the fact that physical distancing often leads to social distancing too—we’re so accustomed to going out together, grabbing a movie together, running together, and up until now that has always included being in the same physical space. Proximity breeds connectivity. But, coronavirus makes that nearly impossible and, in some states, virtually illegal. And it’s the social distancing that hurts us.
We’re wired to be in community with others. To share emotions and social bonds. Decades of research, some of which is my own, have shown that we can’t afford to socially distance as humans. People need social connections to survive. This is especially true in times of crisis and widespread fear when we’re prone to feeling forgotten, ignored, or lonely. According to research, social distancing leads to bias, discrimination, intergroup conflict, stereotypes, violence, substance abuse, and suicide, which only exacerbates an already-dire situation [2,3]. But physical distancing doesn’t mean we can’t stay close. We’re free to find new, different ways to stay connected socially, even while we’re physically apart.
Let’s remember this in the days and weeks ahead. We can keep our distance, yet stay close. Just because we’re apart or alone, doesn’t mean we have to feel lonely. The United States was suffering from a loneliness epidemic long before COVID-19 had a name. The CDC reported “BC” (before Corona) that 65% of Americans identified as “lonely,” rates being highest among the elderly and our most vulnerable. A recent report indicates that 21% of the general population have “no close friends.” Research shows that loneliness can be lethal, reducing executive functions, increasing heart rate, anxiety, and stress, placing individuals at supreme risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. The health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. COVID-19 only exacerbates these effects in ways that are virtually impossible to estimate right now, especially if physical space breaks our social connections.
To combat this disease, let’s harness our natural empathy to take care of ourselves and all those around us. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, explained, “How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health. Never, I think, have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to [the] occasion.” By staying home and keeping safe, we’re rising to the occasion and saving lives. Distance seems so little when lives mean so much.
Indeed, we can harness the power of technology to satisfy our need to belong and connect. Call a friend, family member, or coworker. Make amends with a former boss, a long lost cousin, or an “ex BFF” (best friend forever) who’s hoping you’ll call anyway. Of course, calling is not the only option. Skype. FaceTime. Google Hangouts. Houseparty. Zoom. SnapChat. And the list goes on. Watch a movie together virtually on Netflix, Hulu, or cable; laugh, joke, share reactions by video or text, just as you would if in-person. Use the same apps to cook dinner, read a book, listen to a podcast together, while in separate dwellings. Unplug sometimes and exercise at home, meditate, yoga, pray, and smile while washing your hands—smiling activates positive neural messaging, lowers heart rate and stabilizes blood pressure, studies show. You don’t have to be proximal to smile and laugh.
We cannot let COVID-19 divide us as a nation or keep us from being connected. To fight the invisible enemy, we must be vigilant in washing our hands, sanitizing our spaces, and pulling together in these unprecedented times. Oddly enough, how we pull together right now is by staying apart and finding new ways to preserve social cohesion and create virtual community. We will get through this together, friends. All in a matter of time. Oh, and for those who miss clubbin’, join DJ B Nice’s #ClubQuarantine on Instagram…you don’t have to be over 21 to get in!
 Physical distancing refers to the recommended practice of staying at least 6 feet away from people to avoid spread of disease, in hopes of “flattening the curve.”
Terrell Strayhorn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any social media company or tech organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliation beyond those in his author’s statement.