Staying human and socially distant during Covid-19 crisis

25Mar 2020
The Guardian
Staying human and socially distant during Covid-19 crisis

Living through this pandemic is an experience that has highlighted our potential to be human or not. As people, we are neurologically wired to connect with others. We long for relationships.

By Lane Benjamin

It is these relationships and our ability to connect emotionally with others that is central to our health and to how we live, learn, work and play.

I was inspired to think more about what this means for us as South Africans after listening to a podcast by Thomas Hübl and Terry Patten on “Touching, Not Touching, Not Separate”, State of Emergence, 14 March 2020.

How do we maintain our humanity in the face of a crisis when we need each other, but in order to survive, we need to practise social distancing?

In crisis or threat, our innate and biological instinct is to self-protect. This means that the primitive parts of our brains are activated to enable us to respond to any threat with our fight, flight or freeze response. Our stress response is engaged without too much thinking; in fact, our capacity to process emotion and to think rationally, essentially go offline, leaving us no access to these parts of our brain. We can see evidence of this in the panic buying in our country, where people are seeking rational answers to explain essentially irrational, survival behaviour. We need to understand these behaviours in light of the fear that the brain experiences, and its instinctive need to survive.

In South Africa, given our high rates of violence, many communities know this experience well. The daily experience of survival due to lack of food, housing or safety is a chronic experience for many people. And now we have Covid-19.

Covid-19 comes to us on the back of generations of trauma in our country. As a result the generations of all our past trauma – the unresolved fear, anger, loss, pain and uncertainty that we carry – are retriggered by the virus in the present. The uncertainty of what lies ahead in itself is traumatic and has the potential to trigger our already heightened stress response all over again. For some, social distancing can breed feelings of insecurity, suspicion, fear, loneliness and depression. It can feel as if we have no control.

Even the call to practise social distancing is not within everyone’s control. Social distancing highlights the inequality in South Africa. It is a privilege to be able to practise social distancing if you consider that a fellow citizen may be living in a one-roomed shack with extended family in an overcrowded, informal settlement. It is a privilege to be able to work from home, when you know you have a stable salary at the end of the month and your income is not determined daily or weekly by you physically showing up to work. It is a privilege to be able to afford the data in order to maintain some sense of electronic connection with others as well as maintaining an income remotely.

There are lessons we can learn and ways of being that we can have control over. When the fear and uncertainty becomes too overwhelming, we go into fight-and-engage mode where we want to solve the problem or find someone to blame. Again we have seen people’s survival instincts kick in where some are stock-piling goods to self-protect their own interests over feeling connected and making sure there is enough to share, or we try to solve the problem by blaming groups for the virus and for why it exists, again to self-protect and to distance ourselves from “those people”.

But in order to heal or to be well, we need each other. We need the support, the connection and the physical touch of other people. Social distancing emphasises the paradox for us as human beings in crisis: how much we need each other but also need to physically stay away from each other.

The effects of further preventative measures of social isolation where a person is diagnosed with Covid-19 will also depend on the state of the person’s mental and physical health to begin with. We know that chronic social isolation correlates with a range of health problems and some people will be more vulnerable to the negative effects of longer-term social isolation than others.

But being socially distant does not mean that we need to be socially disconnected. We’ve heard some beautiful stories of ways in which people have reached out to support each other without making physical contact. We are also very privileged to live in a time when we have alternatives to physical face-to-face connection.

Covid-19 has reminded us very clearly of just how connected as humans we are. We are connected to people across the globe and we are connected to each other as South Africans and Africans: despite race, class or culture. This virus has shown that we are in this together and to contain the spread of the virus, we have to consider all human beings, not just those who look, speak and think like us. In order to reduce the spread, we have to consider not only protecting and caring for those we know but also those we don’t know.

It is an opportunity to reconnect with our own children, our partners, our parents. It forces us to be present, paying attention to the here and now, because it is not easy to plan ahead when everything feels so uncertain.

Covid-19 has affirmed our connectedness to our environment and to this Earth. We need to be wise in not wasting that opportunity. The virus has reminded us of how we have exploited animals, the Earth’s resources and the air that we breathe, all for our own benefit.

What co-exists with our pain and vulnerability is our capacity to be resilient. Just as our brain and body have an amazing capacity to regenerate and heal, it feels as if the Earth is trying to heal itself too. Our Earth is fighting back to restore the balance that as humans we have exploited in the short time we have inhabited the planet. We have been forced to stop what we are doing and allow the animals we prey on to recover and the air we breathe to be cleansed.

We have choices that we can make despite the uncertainty. We can control how we behave. We can be intentional about how we want to be during this crisis. We can choose to be empathic and compassionate towards others and we can choose to be present with the people closest to us.

Our web connectivity means that information spreads quickly around the world. However, it also means that information is not always verified or accurate. The wrong information or statements shared out of context can also cause panic and feed the fear of many people. We need to be responsible about how we connect with each other. That is another choice we can make.

Perhaps this time of being alone is a good time to reflect on how we want to show up in the world when the tide turns. Will we still practise the same habits as human beings that we did before? Will we go back to prioritising work and focusing on money over family? Will we ignore how we are depleting our Earth’s resources and return to behaving the way we did before? This is our time to think about who we want to be and to fully understand that my humanity is connected to your humanity.

Victor Frankl’s quote is apt here: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What we choose will allow us to be better as humans during this crisis

Agencies