Social Distancing Is Impossible. We Can’t Blame People

We can’t blame each other for government failures

My family is sheltering largely to protect our 90-year old grandfather, but he just went to a wedding. The bride’s parents insisted that this old man come, and he said “what can I do?” What can we do? Who do we even blame here? Social distancing is impossible.

If we’re asking people to social distance for over nine months now it A) obviously doesn’t work and B) is the wrong point of intervention. Social distancing is part of a coordinated response, not the whole. It’s like telling soldiers to polish their boots and then run into war butt naked, unled, and unarmed. You can’t take personal responsibility for a pandemic. It takes leadership, it takes a society, it takes government.

Just look at the countries that beat this, and learn.

The Possible

Vietnam didn’t just wear masks. Their government closed the border with China, they rapidly scaled up PCR testing, they quarantined every first degree contact away from home. They eliminated the virus once, and kept testing and finding flare-ups to keep it eliminated. Yes, they washed their hands and wore masks, but that was 1% of what they did. They didn’t depend on the personal actions of their dumbest members. They had experts and authorities in charge.

It’s the same in Taiwan, China, Mongolia, New Zealand — all the places that eliminated the virus, and all the places that came close. Westerners write ‘WEAR A FUCKING MASK’ like that personal act would solve everything and it just won’t. You need all the things. You need governance.

The Impossible

I get it, I really do. The feeling that if people weren’t idiots we could beat this. When we hear about people going on group vacations or having choir practice, my wife and I for sure bitch about it. But people are idiots. If your plan depends on people not being stupid it’s not a good plan. We have to govern this.

At the same time, some people are just trapped. The poor, the imprisoned, the friends, relatives and co-workers bound to the choices of someone else. What are these people supposed to do? We have to govern this as well.

The number one tool in government intervention, unfortunately was time, and that’s just gone. Countries that acted early — like Mongolia, Trinidad & Tobago, or Taiwan — were able to eliminate the disease much cheaper and less painfully than anyone else. The second tool was vigilance, as expressed through constant testing. Flare-ups were inevitable, but concerted government action in places like Australia or Singapore was able to get them back down. In Sri Lanka we beat the first wave and got clobbered by the second. We people did the same things, it was the government that failed.

Note that nowhere did a population beat this thing by sheer force of virtue and will. It just doesn’t happen. It cannot happen. Expecting this impossibility just hangs too much weight on people. We can’t bear it. Yes I get that we’re dumbasses, but we’re also just human. In many ways this is why we have government. It’s not our fault.

PCR testing isn’t a home industry, it requires labs and coordination. People don’t test and trace themselves, you need trained people with authority. Home quarantine doesn’t work, you just get home clusters. People have to build and maintain quarantine centers. These tasks are all essential to beating a pandemic, and they all require governance.

Social distancing is only the most cosmetic layer of this puzzle. On its own it’s absolutely not sufficient. It’s like a solider defending themselves with just the shine on their boots. OK, good, but where are the generals, where’s the air support, where’s the cavalry? Are we all supposed to be epidemiologists now, to do the COVID calculus of every interaction? Can we close borders or do PCR testing on our own? Is this all on Auntie Jean now? You’re really saying that the pandemic plan depends on college students not having sex, and if they do the whole thing is their fault?

This whole misplaced idea of personal responsibility IS the problem. This idea keeps us demanding the impossible from each other and lets our governments off scot-free. We focus on minor cosmetic issues and not the major government actions, and the people that should frankly lose their jobs. Look at NY governor Andrew Cuomo writing a book about how great his (terrible) pandemic response was, right before screwing it up again.

We talk about how stupid our friends and neighbors are — which they are — but not about the complete failures of leadership which should know better. In many ways this misplaced idea of personal responsibility keeps us from solving social problems. We blame people for not following leadership that isn’t there. That’s the problem.

This is a lesson we must learn because we’re facing the same conceptual problem with climate change. We blame each other for eating too much meat and flying too much, which are problems, but not the bigger issue. The bigger issue is that 100 companies and 33 banks profit from climate change. The richest 1% emit more than double the bottom 50%. These people then corrupt our governments, and that lack of governance gets us killed.

Such is the tragedy of the exhausted people of COVID 19–20. We blame each other for failing to personally control a pandemic, a social disease. It’s a logical contradiction that feels emotionally right.

I fully understand. I curse the family that invited our elder and we talk shit about all the irresponsible people we know. But at some point my wife and I look at each other and say “we’re the only ones doing this. People look at us like we’re crazy. This is impossible.” And that feeling is right. Perhaps you feel it too. Social distancing is impossible. We need government. In short, we need socialism.

People, including my wife have pointed out that the last line is a bit abrupt. What I mean by socialism is a a form of government that isn’t neoliberal. A place that invests in public health and public services and which provides a robust safety net so people can stay home, etc. Also one which isn’t corrupted to the point that it lets people die as long as the stock market is fine. Note that such governments still need to be competent, Sweden has all of the above but a sociopath epidemiologist in Anders Tegnell and it all went to hell. And to be honest I should actually say communism. Those are the countries that have done best of all.