Early in the coronavirus outbreak, I would hear reports that the most responsible action to contain the spread of the virus was “social distancing.” While it was clear that slowing the transmission of the virus was of the highest priority, I was immediately struck by the term itself — social distancing. The importance of reducing physical proximity between people as a mechanism to contain the virus makes an enormous amount of sense. At the same time, in a society that is already increasingly atomized and overly focused on the self, particularly in today’s networked and divisive global environment, the last thing we need is social distance from each other. Might we call it something else?
At last count, the coronavirus is in over 150 countries. This is a global conversation that connects us all. Epidemic, pandemic … we must be talking about this now in hundreds of languages. So how can we share this common experience while staying within our physical boundaries?
We need world intimacy. It’s the language of love, empathy, culture, shared human experience, common aspirations. The coronavirus has already proven an inalienable truth: Our national borders have always been an artificial construct to separate us and give us false identity of the other. Our goal now should be to reconnect, not socially distance ourselves from one another.
It’s time to try new kinds of relationships with others. We can do explicit modeling, like the use of check-ins, where we can connect in different ways, with intention. We often take person-to-person interactions for granted when we are face to face because we have more readily available social cues to draw from.
I think the work in front of us now is to invent new ways to replicate the serendipity of face-to-face events, dinner parties, conferences, concerts — create the opportunity to meet others whom you otherwise wouldn’t meet isolated at home. I’ve been thinking about hosting virtual dinner parties — where we meet together online with Zoom. I’ll suggest a topic and we’ll all eat together. These virtual interactions can reduce isolation, help people cope with the fear of uncertainty and encourage much needed dialogue and conversation.
This feels critical now as many of us are craving the places where we find respite, meaning, love, healing, whether it is in Starbucks, the gym, the theater, museums, or listening to a street artist — the daily experiences that make our lives meaningful. As someone who works with researchers, practitioners and policymakers around the world on issues of access to education, not having the opportunity to travel, meet, connect and learn in person is hard, and I’m feeling the loss.
Is this even realistic given that more people are going to lose their lives or livelihoods. And there are still other crises — Syrian refugees massed at the Turkish border; sex trafficking in Eastern Europe; gang violence in Central America; and everywhere, the devastating impacts of climate change. These crises call for radical global intimacy, not social distancing.
What does a post-COVID-19 world look like? We need to acknowledge that no matter how this works out, we will get past it. If all we learn is that we took a hit, and perhaps dodged a bullet, we won’t have taken advantage of our own evolution as a species. I believe this event has the potential to accelerate that evolution by helping us develop new ways to build and share our common humanity. A friend said it simply, “Look for the helpers, be a helper.”
If we recognize this nascent virtual movement, we can build on the momentum generated by a movement toward common collaborative work, common values, collaborative effort, and global community benefits and outcomes.
And, in the meanwhile, what can we learn about ourselves? The very nature of the spread of the virus, through social situations, can be a reminder of how much we need and depend on each other and are connected not only to those closest but to those faraway sharing a common experience. We can use this crisis as an opportunity to examine and strengthen our social connections to help establish the new world intimacy.
We can make this moment unique and important, not from what it takes away from us, but by how it offers us the opportunity to reset our social norms toward collaboration and interdependence, and how we think about the other.
Lisa Petrides is CEO and founder of ISKME, a global nonprofit dedicated to democratizing access to education for all. This is a lightly edited version. To read the piece in full, click here.