In which we all fail at social distancing

In this post I wondered whether we would all get so used to social distancing that we would become averse to proximity with other humans.

I can now report, with some relief, that my worry was misplaced. As soon as the first whisper went round about plans to start relaxing the lockdown measures, everyone was out having large, sociable picnics and brushing amicably past each other in the supermarket aisles again. Nobody was moving off the path when they passed someone else in a park, and nobody was jumping into the road to avoid coming close to someone else on the pavement.

Shortly after the first relaxation of the rules (up to six people from different households could gather but they still had to maintain 2m distance between each other), some friends of mine, Satya and Jochem, had a “covid-proof celebration” for their daughter’s first birthday. The plan was that they would station themselves in a park with cupcakes and friends could swing by, at a safe distance. But the heavens opened and pelted rain, hail and all sorts of celestial detritus down, and they had to scurry back home. “But come and have cupcakes here!” they said.

So I went over to their house and Satya came to the door, offering hugs. I said “I’d love to hug you but don’t think I should”. She cocked her head in a reassuring manner and said “You can give me a hug, can’t you?” and I felt awful saying “I really think it’s better not to”. Fortunately, she did understand. 

Then she told me “Just to warn you, there’s a whole lot of us in there and there’s no social distancing whatsoever.” 

They were packing up house to leave the country, and most of their living room was taken up with boxes. A group of people was crammed into the little space that remained. It was really nice to socialise in person after so long, but I came home very worried. 

My worry wasn’t so much that I might have transmitted or picked up the virus that afternoon. Realistically, after three months of lockdown, it was unlikely that any of us was infected, but that was not really the point. The point was that we had slipped back into close-contact socialising with the greatest of naturalness, and if everybody around the country went back to mingling so merrily, it wouldn’t be long before one rogue case of covid found a way in and started flooding through the once-more-sociable population. 

A few days later, some mutual friends arranged a “socially distanced farewell run” for Satya and Jochem, who were moving back to their home country of the Netherlands. There were about 15 of us, but at that point no more than six people from different households were supposed to gather. So we split up, with Satya running one way around the lake in the park, accompanied by a few people, Jochem running the other way around with his entourage, and the rest staying behind to babysit their daughter and eat grapes and millionaire’s shortbread. 

The guy organising it had emphasised that we should keep a distance from each other. But the paths were narrow, the park was crowded, most of us hadn’t seen each other for months and wanted to catch up, and it’s really hard to talk to someone while you’re running two metres apart from each other. Social distancing did not happen (except in the group photo, a completely staged memento of “socialising while social distancing”). 

So apparently human nature wins out. We’re hopeless at social distancing. 

4 thoughts on “In which we all fail at social distancing

  1. … and in any case, how long is 2 metres?

    In reality, I think that at each end of the 2m is a magnet. The magnets are inexorably attracted to each other. The distance resists struggle against compression. And we get cosier and cosier.

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  2. That’s what is happening here too…i see very little social distancing! My niece had an event a few weeks ago and no one was social distancing or wearing masks. Antonello and i stood outside, trying to distance, but it was really hard to keep that up when they put food on the table!

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  3. I think of it as social entropy. The natural state is to enjoy being close to our tribe of people and not be distant from them. So it requires sufficient external pressure to overcome to force of entropy that seeks to meet our social needs. The problem is that threat is a learned process: So while earlier on the threat was powerful enough to overcome entropy, the longer we go without consequences, the less fearful we become, and entropy wins.

    As an aside, I think the same might be true in regard to all kinds of social questions, like national or global unity. It’s unnatural for us to feel connected at such large group levels that we need plenty of external input of energy to maintain that connection, and without that energy input, everything falls apart.

    Fun blog!

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