Social Distancing: A Tug-of-War Between Health Concerns and Doing Whatever You Want
Tue, April 20, 2021

Social Distancing: A Tug-of-War Between Health Concerns and Doing Whatever You Want


Colloquially called the “Spanish flu,” the influenza killed as much as 100 million in 1918 and about 675,000 in the US, explained German Lopez of Vox, an American news and opinion website. States and cities across the US implemented social distancing. Schools, businesses, and restaurants were closed and public gatherings were banned. Citizens were instructed to isolate and quarantine. In some areas, social distancing and isolation lasted for months.

It worked but it was far from perfect. In some cities, people did not always follow what experts and officials were instructing them to do. Presently, President Donald Trump suggested “pulling back social distancing efforts.” However, during the 1918 flu pandemic, pulling back on such measures early on caused flu cases and deaths to skyrocket.  

Most Americans Say They Are Social Distancing

On a poll conducted by Gallup from March 20 to 22, it found that 72% of US adults are avoiding public spaces like stores and restaurants, cited Lopez. On March 13-15 and on March 16-19, 30% and 54% of Americans said they avoided going to public places.

92% of Americans (March 20-22) avoided going to events with large crowds like concerts, compared to 59% (March 13-15) and 79% (March 16-19) who do so. Most Americans (87%) practiced social distancing to the point that they avoided traveling by airplane, bus, subway, or train. When the poll was conducted from March 13-15 and from March 16-19, the figures were at 55% and 75%, respectively.  

73% canceled or postponed travel plans, according to the poll.  When Gallup polled Americans a week prior, the figures were at 39% (March 13-15) and 57% (March 16-19). 68% of Americans even avoided small gatherings with family and friends versus 23% (March 13-15) and 46% (March 16-19) of Americans a week prior.   Interestingly, about 72% of adults aged 18 to 29 said they’re avoiding small gatherings, unlike 69% of those aged 30 to 59 and 67% of people aged 60.  73% of women were avoiding small gatherings compared to 64% of men.

59% of US adults stocked on food, medical supplies, or cleaning supplies, a slight increase from March 16-19’s 52%. However, the figure amounted to 39% when the poll was conducted from March 13-15. The findings showed that more Americans are taking social distancing more seriously than ever before.

There Is A Limit to Social Distancing, According to Albertans

Albertans and Canadians in general perceive COVID-19 as a serious threat and support social distancing to curb the spread of the virus, according to a poll conducted by Leger, a Canadian-owned market research company, mentioned Darren Francey of Calgary Herald, a daily newspaper in Canada. However, the findings indicated that people would self-isolate to an extent.

When asked about how serious the pandemic threat is, 49% answered “correct level of response,” 22% said “partly blown out of proportion,” 19% said “partly correct level of response to COVID-19,” and 7% admitted that the threat was “blown way out of proportion.” When asked if the respondents were afraid of getting the virus, 42% said “somewhat afraid,” 22% said “not very afraid,” 16% answered “very afraid,” and 12% reported not being afraid at all.

In Alberta, 59% would self-isolate for 14 days, though 38% said they would “partly self-isolate.” A small percentage of Albertans (4%) would not self-isolate. Despite that, Albertans are willing to leave their homes for a couple of tasks. For example, 60% planned to shop for groceries, 18% planned to order take-out food from a restaurant, 11% planned to order food delivered to home or business. 10% of Albertans intended to go to a convenience store or a liquor store.



Giving Up Too Early Is Not a Viable Option to Curb the Spread of the Virus

Social distancing practices have to be followed consistently. We might need to do this for months, but social distancing is necessary to save lives. A 2007 study by Markel H. and colleagues of JAMA Network, a peer-reviewed journal portal, stated that St. Louis pulled back its social distancing efforts when the pandemic appeared to subside, mentioned Lopez However, the initiative was premature as deaths started to rise again.

The second spike in deaths occurred when cities backed down from their social distancing efforts. Markel and colleagues said, “Among the 43 cities, we found no example of a city that had a second peak of influenza while the first set of nonpharmaceutical interventions were still in effect.”

Social distancing efforts should not be taken for granted, as it is difficult to predict when the coronavirus will be gone. Further, the public health sector needs to weigh the impacts of social distancing to the economy and to families who need to leave their homes for work.



But People Will Do Whatever They Want

In general, humans are bad at assessing risk, said Eleanor Cummins of Vox. Cynthia Rohrbeck, an associate professor in clinical and community psychology at George Washington History, said, “It’s about our risk to others, and that might make it a little more difficult to understand.” We are accustomed to talking to professionals about our personal health, but we don’t take responsibility for other people’s health.

Our judgment could be overshadowed by optimism bias, which refers to the belief that we are less likely than others to face negative experiences. Optimism bias is bolstered when people believe that they are less at risk from contracting the virus because they had fewer human interactions than their peers, according to a mid-March poll that surveyed over 800 individuals from the US, the UK, and Germany. The survey was done by Benjamin J. Kuper-Smith and colleagues and published on PsyArXiv, a preprint repository.

Optimism bias can be institutionalized and confuse citizens as policies and science evolve. For example, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched a “herd immunity” strategy, which seemed to motivate youths to do what they want and possibly contract COVID-19.  

In the US, many politicians criticized government-imposed restrictions as they infringe on people’s freedom and causes the economy to fall.  Sen. Ron Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a daily broadsheet in Wisconsin, “We can’t all just shut ourselves and stay home. The economy has to move forward.”

Katie Williams, a 30-year-old Las Vegas resident who went viral on Twitter, said she refuses to live her life in fear, arguing that Americans always have the “we do whatever we want” attitude. She added, “I think if we’re going to start pressuring people that they have to stay home, or publicly shaming them like pariahs, I think we’re just starting to lose a little bit of our sense of country and our sense of rights.”

Amy Fairchild, a public health ethicist and the dean of Ohio State University’s College of Public Health, acknowledged these concerns, asserting that there are rights to take into account. She emphasized, “As an individual, I have a right not to be infected by somebody who is not paying attention.”

Social distancing may be effective in curbing the coronavirus, but policymakers should be equipped with good leadership skills and empathy. Some people risk their lives to go to work to provide for themselves or for their families. Health officials and policy makers must assess the impacts of social distancing to workers and the economy. However, social distancing is not a privilege for other people, as they will not have food on their tables if they don’t go to work.