By the end of the year, “social distancing” may be the most important phrase you’d never heard of before 2020.
As a preventive measure to contain the spread of disease—such as COVID-19—social distancing is the simple practice of maintaining a distance (in this case, at least six feet) between you and other people. This also entails minimizing contact with people, such as avoiding public transportation or social gatherings. Social distancing has proven to save lives in the past, such as during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the 2009 flu pandemic in Mexico City, and is expected to save lives today—if enough people adopt the practice.
“Every single reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population,” said Gerardo Chowell, chair of population health sciences at Georgia State University.
Unfortunately, we all know groups that—out of ignorance or obstinance—are willfully avoiding this essential public health practice. Here’s how to talk to various family members about how they can stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.
Your young children, who don’t understand why they need to stay away from people
After you talk to your children about the coronavirus, take the next step by explaining how they can help stop the disease.
Young children are accustomed to living in a world as the weak ones who need to be protected by stronger people. This current crisis reverses that role. “It seems to be that children just aren’t as affected, and they don’t seem to get as sick,” says epidemiologist Emily Landon, medical director for infection prevention and control at University of Chicago Medicine.
Explain to them that God has equipped their young bodies with a special ability to fight off the virus, and that ability helps prevent them from getting sick. But because the virus can still be transmitted by them, they have to keep their distance from older people who are more vulnerable.
It’s also helpful to make it as personal as possible. Point out their friends and family who may be more susceptible, such as those who are elderly, pregnant, have diabetes, or are recovering from cancer. Children are likely to be more willing to contribute to the cause when they realize their sacrifices have heroic implications and that their actions could literally save lives.
Your kids, home from college, who can’t understand why they can’t go party
Start by explaining the fact that while they are at low risk for getting the disease, they are not at a similarly low risk of spreading the virus. In fact, infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we previously realized. Next, have them watch the visualizations in this Washington Post article on “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve.’”
If that doesn’t convince them to stay home, you might ask if you’re wasting money on their college education.
Your dad, who is afraid someone might call him a “liberal”
In the 1990s cartoon Rugrats, there’s an episode where two infant boys discuss “bad words.” “Maybe a bad word is a word that people don’t want to hear,” Tommy says. “Well then,” Phil says, “I know a really bad word: bath.”
Many grown men seem to consider “social distancing” to be a similar “bad word.” We live in strange times when avoiding basic health and hygiene requirements for the sake of public health is considered an act of political independence, rather than infantile rebellion.
Perhaps the best way to respond to such childish behavior is to implore them to do it for their kid. Simply ask your father to avoid crowds and avoid shaking hands with people—and to do it for you. When he objects say, “You can tell them you promised your son/daughter you wouldn’t.”
It won’t always work, of course, but many grown men have a hard time saying no to the concerned appeals of their children.
Your mom, who says, “I have Jesus, I am not scared!”
There are two things you should tell a mom who says she’s not worried because when she dies, she’ll go be with Jesus.
First, if you have Jesus then you should realize that your body is not your own to do with what you will. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul says. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Second, even if you don’t care about your own health you should be concerned about exposing others to the virus. Loving your neighbor as Jesus commands means showing concern for who your actions might affect (such as people with diabetes, cancer, hypertension, pregnancy, and so on).
Your uncle, who always plays the contrarian
Some people just have a natural predilection to opposing or rejecting popular opinion. I have this unfortunate tendency myself. When the Great Recession began in 2007, I consistently and repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the financial crisis. I took it as a personal affront when friends and coworkers expressed concern, pessimism, or anything I considered to resemble “panic.” I would even ignore evidence that contradicted my perspective.
I was wrong. And my obstinacy made me callous to the suffering of others. I see that same attitude in many other men and women today when it comes to COVID-19.
Rather than trying to convince them they’re wrong, convince them that even if they are mostly right, they should practice social distancing. Be willing to admit, for the sake of argument, that they may be right. Maybe it’s the case that the media have hyped the problem beyond what’s justified. Maybe it’s true the government has blown it all out of proportion. Then, having made that concession, drop in an “even if . . .” Even if the threat is overstated, social distancing may still be able to contain and minimize whatever real threat may exist.
Consider, for example, the contrarian take of Michael Levitt, a Nobel laureate and biophysicist who teaches structural biology at Stanford University. Levitt looked at the data for a province in China and found that the virus had increased by 30 percent each day. At this rate, he realized, the entire world should have been infected within 90 days. But that didn’t happen. Based on the diminishing number of infection cases and deaths, Levitt predicted that that the virus will probably disappear from China by the end of March.
“When discussing diseases, it frightens people a lot because they keep hearing about new cases every day,” Levitt says. “But the fact that the infection rate is slowing down means the end of the pandemic is near.”
What caused the infection rate to slow? Keeping our distance. “You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face to face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt says. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep infection in check. So, under these circumstances, a carrier will only infect 1.5 people every three days and the rate will keep going down.”
“That is my message,” Levitt concludes. “You need to think of corona like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive.”
Maybe it’s overhyped. Maybe it’s not as deadly as we fear. But even the smart contrarians admit that, for now, we need to keep our distance from one another.
Your grandfather, who watches too much cable news
Let’s start by distinguishing between what is true and what is not helpful to say right now. You may be tempted (as I always am) to point out how cable news makes us dumber. You may also be tempted to point out that many cable programs (especially the opinion shows on Fox News) were dangerously negligent in downplaying the threat of the virus. Those discussions can resume when the crisis is over (and at a time when your argument will appear incontrovertible).
Right now, the best approach is to focus on how the messaging has changed. Point out that those sources who previously called the virus a “hoax”—such as President Trump and Fox News—have changed their view and now warn Americans to take COVID-19 seriously by practicing social distancing.
For example, on Monday President Trump released guidelines instructing Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people for the next 15 days to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in stopping the spread and transmission of the virus,” Trump said at a White House briefing. The president added, “It’s bad, it’s bad.”
Similarly, former House speaker and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich pointed out that it’s better to overreact to the threat of the virus than to under-react. “I would urge everyone who is listening to us today,” Gingrich said on Fox News, “plan not to go to the bar, plan not to go to a restaurant, plan not to go to any meetings that involve lots of people.”
“Recognize that for the next month or two, we all living through something that is comparable to a war,” Gingrich said. “And it’s a war which could affect any Americans. You don’t know how many of your loved ones you might infect could end up dying. So it’s your job to try to minimize that virus.”
But what if they won’t listen?
Christians are engaging in social distancing as an act of neighbor love. In this situation, your duty as a believer and also as a family member is to provide wise counsel. But you cannot always control whether they heed your counsel. As Proverbs 27:12 says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”
In the near future, we may all suffer the consequences of their selfish behavior. Yet you will have done your part by trying to persuade them to do the right thing. So be bold and talk to your family about social distancing—just be sure to do it from six feet away.