(March 22, 2020 / JNS) We are used to thinking of security threats as something tangible, visible and easily identified. From missiles to burglars, these threats are things we know, things we understand and have learned to deal with. But what of an enemy that we can’t see, can’t yet identify and, worst off all, one that hides among our friends, our co-workers and even our immediate family?
That is exactly what we all are facing in confronting COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, aka the coronavirus.
In a strange and surreal sense, the world is becoming more united as we all face this common enemy. The enemy of Israel is also the enemy of Iran. It is an enemy that strikes all races, all religions, all political philosophies and all lands. It wants to attack Sen. Bernie Sanders no less than it wants to attack U.S. President Donald Trump, and may yet be the reason Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz join forces.
But beyond the temporary unity that may exist now is a reality that is difficult for many to grasp. This unfamiliar, unseen intruder is a threat to national security no less than the familiar ones we have been dealing with for years. It will disrupt our social lives, wreak havoc with our economy and, most important, will threaten us physically. The numbers of lives already lost to COVID-19 around the globe is no illusion, and it provides evidence for what will happen if we fail to take the steps that must be taken. And while we wait for the much-hoped-for-vaccine, we do have a weapon in our arsenal that may not kill the virus but can keep it at bay until the cavalry arrives.
“Social distancing” is a term we’re all getting to know quite well. In a nutshell, stay home and keep away from people as much as you can. And when you must be near anyone, keep your distance. Just follow the suggestions, and things will get better.
Sounds easy—but medicine for years has been saying that smoking is bad, junk food is unhealthy and exercise is good. Yet, for some reason, people continue to do things that are bad for them and refuse to do things that are good for them. There is no reason to think that it will be different now. Just as some diabetics cheat and eat candy, there will be those that test the boundaries of social distancing and try to expand the boundaries of where they should and should not go.
If you are one of these people, then you either don’t understand or don’t want to understand what the fuss is all about. You may think it is over-hype, panic or maybe even a conspiracy of some sort. While you keep away from people you don’t know, you make exceptions for some of your friends and most of your family, as if you can never be infected by them. You selectively consume information, ignoring what you don’t want to hear and perhaps distorting it to justify yourself. In the end, you’ll lose. Your few moments of social bliss will cause harm to people you don’t even know.
The drive to be with other people, to be “social,” is quite strong. But the difficulty with social distancing goes beyond otherwise well-adjusted individuals. Some people are simply “refusers” that have a problem following rules. We all know who they are. Others are “deniers,” who really do follow the rules, but only when they believe the rules are important or make sense. We have adolescents who know that they are not really in danger even if they are infected and overlook the danger their developing social autonomy can lead to. We also have the ideological individuals whose religious beliefs and practice may conflict with some of the health authorities’ guidelines.
The tendency for authorities to constantly repeat the same mantras of “wash your hands,” “keep your distance” and “stay home when you can” may lead to people becoming overanxious. While freezing up and being unable to cross the street even when the light is green is not what we want, frivolously ignoring red lights may be worse. We need to strike a balance between prudent awareness and discipline and paralyzing anxiety associated with gloom and doom.
There is no way to achieve a perfect social-distancing model. The refusers, deniers and conspiracy theorists will not be convinced by the evidence, no matter who presents it and no matter how many times it is repeated. Only you can protect yourself, and by protecting yourself you also protect others. And now is the time to act.
If that sounds familiar, remember the well-known verse in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?“
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs specializing in political psychology.
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