The Unintended Consequences of Social Distancing

From health problems to broken societies, we will be struggling with the unintended consequences of social distancing for the rest of our lives.
The Unintended Consequences of Social Distancing

Three Asian people wearing mask standing distance of 1 meter from other people keep distance protect from COVID-19 viruses and people social distancing for infection risk © Travelpixs /

April 29, 2020 19:00 EDT

In July 1942, as the battles of World War II raged around the world, a group of leading scientists from Britain and America convened in Berkeley, California to discuss the development of the biggest bomb the world had ever seen. Naturally there was a sense of urgency; at that time the war could have gone either way, in both Europe and the Pacific, and people regarded that war, arguably rightly, as not just a war of dominance but an existential war of good versus evil.

Despite that urgency, caution was abound. While the aspiration was to build a bomb that could obliterate a medium sized city, it was not to build a bomb that would obliterate an entire country or continent, nor was it to irradiate and make perpetually uninhabitable the whole world, nor was it to set off a chain reaction that would ignite the atmosphere. All these possibilities were analyzed, and analyzed carefully, by sober minded folks who knew their art. The first bomb was not detonated until July 1945, some three years later. It did its job. Roughly 200,000 Japanese lost their lives, but the bomb did not render Japan uninhabitable, nor did it ignite the earth’s atmosphere. The war in the Pacific ended, America established itself as the world’s preeminent superpower for the remainder of the 20th century, and the fact that little boys and girls around the world watch Hollywood movies, eat McDonald’s and browse Facebook is a testament to that triumph of good versus evil.

Fast forward nearly 80 years. The world faces a new threat, that of COVID-19. Because surrender is not an option, world leaders have taken arms against the disease, and vowed to fight it by all means necessary. Speaking on April 14th, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, remarked, “The absolute priority must be to focus all of our resources, not just of the state, but of businesses, and all of you at home as well, in a collective national effort to beat this virus.” The message could not be clearer that the virus must be defeated. At what cost? At any cost. By what means? By any means necessary.

Front and center of world leaders’ armory of preferred weapons, one policy measure has become the standard bearer above all others: social distancing. The idea is simple, by limiting social interactions the virus has less opportunity to spread, and this simple idea has resulted in the locking down of societies at every corner of the earth, so that now more than half the world’s population is under some form of house arrest.

We Must Do Something

The cost of inaction is clear. Early estimates of the lethality of COVID-19 range in the single figure percentages. Assuming crudely that 60% of the world’s 7.8 billion people contract the disease, and estimating the mortality rate as 5%, that would result in 234 million lives lost to the disease, roughly double the total lives lost in World Wars I and II. Moreover, 5% mortality assumes good medical care for the severely sick, but in the event that healthcare systems become overrun the mortality rate could be double that. Therefore, left unchecked it is entirely feasible that half a billion people could perish if our response to this pesky pathogen is to simply let it run its course. These are sobering numbers.

So, something must be done, and the currently preferred something is telling everyone to stay at home and not allow the virus to spread. On the face of it, early official numbers suggest the policy is working, from a public health point of view at least. However, the less obvious consequences of this policy have not been thought through, at least not with the level of care that is needed for a planet-wide intervention of this magnitude.

Political, Economic and Spiritual Consequences

So, what are the less obvious consequences of social distancing? These are not just limited to public health, and looking at COVID-19 as a public health crisis alone is like looking at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 as an Austro-Hungarian Empire succession crisis. Rather, coronavirus and our response to it will have economic consequences, political consequences and spiritual consequences, in addition to public health consequences.

On the economic side, the damage is clear. Social distancing will result in an ongoing flight to online work available only to those with the necessary education. For the majority of people who need to turn up in person to work, times will be very tough indeed. The biggest visible changes will be in the urban centers that previously bustled with office workers and now stand empty. These empty streets will not stay empty however, and there will be a tendency for all kinds of unsavory sorts to move in. Many cities will be isolated and abandoned to a wave of criminality and gang violence unless draconian measures are put in place to prevent that. Places where a robust state intervention happens first, like the UK and most of Europe, will appear very different in character to places like the US and India with weaker states, but the underlying tensions caused by social distancing will be the same.

Moreover, shrinking economies run into the problem of too many people and not enough resources, and where that happens political consequences are inevitable. People will retreat into tribes, and these tribes will be complex and multifaceted, reflecting nationality, religion, political ideology and many other divisions. Each of these rifts will become deeper and wider. People’s response to the virus, both practical and psychological, will reflect their previously felt inclinations. Where differences rub up against each other, either across borders or internal divides, there will be problems, ranging from tensions between and within institutions and communities to outright war in places.

Out of the dust there will be both winners and losers, but the transition will not be peaceful for those at the interface. Places like Sweden, with comparative cultural and political harmoniousness, combined with abundant resources and wise political leadership, will escape the worst of the troubles. Places like the India-Pakistan border where scarce resources, geopolitical tensions and religious and cultural differences overlap will be the hardest hit.

Of course, many of these tensions have been rumbling for a long time. At a geopolitical level, it is naive to not realize that countries facing lockdown are vulnerable from the point of view of defense. Who will exploit those vulnerabilities and how is hard to say, but one does not have to look very far to find saber rattling at every scale, from neighbors being a little more possessive about the parking spot outside their house to Donald Trump tweeting about the “Chinese Virus.”

One invasion that is easy to predict, and made more iminent by social distancing, is the coming Facebook push to virtual and augmented reality communication, which will bring with it the ability of a private company, under the control of one man, to control literally everything we see. He will argue he is bringing people together, but that was what Hitler said during the annexation of Austria in 1938. Many people will have a sense something is wrong but few will protest, and certainly not enough to prevent this Internet Anschluss, within which we will be thoroughly insulated from news of the world burning around us.

And so what about our minds? The confusion created by destroying many of the rituals people depended on, simple things like pizza with friends or movies together, in addition to actual worship, will create a spiritual crisis like no other, causing many people to lose their grip on reality. This will be the true madness of social distancing: not the madness of the policy but the madness we will all struggle not to descend into.

Many will embrace the new normal, almost relishing the loss of liberties that were so hard fought for and so hard won. Even for those who miss the old days, social distancing will turn from being strictly a public health measure into a moral framework of sorts, the same way the theory of evolution evolved itself in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries from being a scientific theory to a moral framework, providing the intellectual basis for eugenics movements in both America and Europe that ultimately culminated in the horrors of Nazism.

Long after social distancing is over and coronavirus is cured or vaccinated against, citizens who don’t wear a facemask will be shamed as being “unhygienic.” Well-meaning puritans will argue that “it’s not just your own health you’re risking” just as people today criticize those who break the speed limit when they drive. Each side will be maddened and infuriated by the other, each bolstered with self-righteous confidence that their political views are in fact derived from unbreakable principles of scientific fact.

Trust Me, I’m a Scientist

So let’s look at the science. Just as Catholics and Protestants disagree about Christianity, so too do reductionists and systems-level thinkers in biology. Right now the reductionists hold sway in political circles and argue that as long as R-zero, the average number of people each infected person infects, can be reduced below one by aggressive action we can all breathe a sigh of relief. What they underestimate is the natural homeostasis of life, guided by many different interrelated causes and effects. For example, the “hygiene hypothesis” proposes that less exposure to pathogens results in more autoimmune disease, even though the extent of and mechanisms for this observation remain unclear. What is clear is that coronavirus is not the only thing people are dying of right now, and we do not yet know all the causes for the vast number of “extra deaths” we are currently seeing beyond those attributed to coronavirus.

Moreover, a lingering taboo following disastrous early 20th century eugenics movements is the topic of evolution in public health. Nevertheless, the complex homeostasis of life has everything to do with evolution not just of humans but all life, including pathogens themselves. Under normal circumstances, people avoid those who are visibly sick. This follows from an evolutionary adaptation by humans to feel the emotion of disgust towards people who are unwell. Moreover, sick people tend to isolate themselves by not going to work or socializing and so forth. These factors create an evolutionary pressure for normal coronaviruses and other pathogens to reach a stable equilibrium where they are symptomatic enough to be infectious, but not so symptomatic that the isolating effects of being sick take effect. This stable equilibrium explains how new normal strains of coronavirus and other upper respiratory infections continuously emerge in the human population but the symptoms remain relatively stable over time.

With the policies adopted by most of the world’s governments, social distancing has reversed the evolutionary pressure for pathogens to not become too symptomatic. Rather than sick people isolating themselves, it is now healthy people who are capable of self-care who are isolating themselves. On the other hand, people who have severe symptoms of coronavirus and other diseases require care, and this necessitates social contact.

In effect, we have neutralised the effect of the emotion of disgust, one that evolved over millions of years to protect humans from pathogens, and at the same time we have reversed the social mechanism that allows for the preferential spread of less symptomatic strains of disease. This applies to every pathogen, not just coronavirus. Therefore, social distancing has created an evolutionary pressure on coronavirus and other infectious diseases to become more symptomatic over time.

The emergence of a new illness placing children into intensive care at this time is not a coincidence. It will be an early example of many unintended public health consequences for a policy response that does not take into account the whole picture. Rather than narrowly impacting just coronavirus, the whole ecology of human pathogens will change as a result of social distancing, precisely because we have changed the environmental conditions in which human pathogens survive, and we may not like what emerges in the light of that change. In a nutshell: Social distancing might well reduce the short-term COVID-19 death-count, but in the long term it may cost more lives than it saves and cause more disease and suffering than it prevents.

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

To say things are complicated and we don’t understand everything is a cliche, but it is an important one we should not forget. It is especially widely forgotten in science, for while systems thinking is not new, it is somewhat new to science. For a long time the scientific method was almost synonymous with reductionism, that is finding simple laws to explain complex phenomena. Literary modernists in the 1920s and 1930s, upon examining the causes of World War I, laid the blame squarely at the feet of late 19th and early 20th century rationalism, the idea that we are at our core logical and able to understand the world. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, laying bare the wreckage of war, expressed its wisdom by drawing together styles, genres and languages, in a tour-de-force of what one might call systems literature.

Sadly, that kind of systems thinking rarely finds favor in political circles, because systems biology, like modernist literature, requires a multi-layered, multi-lingual understanding only a small number of people have. It’s much easier to just give a simple explanation, like the train timetable analysts who told European leaders in the build up to World War I that we must mobilize troops because the other side already has. Reductionist epidemiological models with their daily death counts and flattened curves are scientific populism, creating a dangerous and seductive illusion of understanding for ordinary citizens and political leaders alike.

Just as the construction of the world’s biggest ever bomb is something to be done carefully and soberly over a period of time to make sure we don’t blow up the atmosphere, so too is the world’s biggest ever intervention into the survival conditions of human pathogens. And beyond unforeseen public health consequences, are we blowing up the atmosphere in ways that aren’t yet appreciated?

Economically, we have utterly abandoned the principles of free enterprise and private property, making it a crime to do something as simple as open a barber shop and offer a haircut. Politically, we have closed parliaments and courts, postponed elections, outlawed free assembly, lauded Chinese style techno-authoritarianism, and marginalized voices of dissent, such as Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, as being unscientific when in fact all they are is non-reductionist. Spiritually, we have made it sacrilegious to suggest that science makes for a poor instrument to examine ethics, that life is finite and must be lived even in the face of death, and that in-person spiritual community matters especially in times of crisis. Staying at home browsing Facebook is not the answer. So, yes, we just blew up the economic, political and spiritual atmospheres, and the plan seems to be: “Don’t worry, we can put them back again!” Let’s hope we can.

You may argue that the prospect of hundreds of millions of deaths justifies any action. However, if you ask what was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, most educated people would say something like Nazi genocide, Stalin’s purges, the partition of India or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Few would say smallpox, which caused the deaths of an estimated 300 to 500 million people between 1900 and 2000, and fewer still would say cardiovascular disease, which caused over a billion. With the wisdom of historical hindsight we understand that counting deaths is not the only thing that matters. If this really is a war, and it clearly is, it’s worth spending some lives, maybe an awful lot of lives, on the things we really care about for our children and their children, and not trusting to luck that we’ll be able to rebuild the economic, political and spiritual atmospheres with the same ease with which we’ve destroyed them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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