Social Distancing May Be Our Best Weapon to Fight the Coronavirus

Reprint

In pandemics, as in war, we all need to do our part.

By Max Brooks

Mr. Brooks is the author of “World War Z.”

March 11, 2020

Grand Central Terminal had fewer commuters than usual on a Monday morning after a state of emergency was declared amid confirmed coronavirus cases in New York.
Grand Central Terminal had fewer commuters than usual on a Monday morning after a state of emergency was declared amid confirmed coronavirus cases in New York.
Credit…Brian Moss/Reuters

“Social distancing” might sound like an emotional phase in early adolescence (it certainly was for me) but in reality, it’s a public health term describing our best defense against the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this pathogen can spread “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).” That close contact has carried the virus across the planet, killing at least 4,000 people and infecting over 110,000 (that we know of). Until a vaccine — or even an effective treatment — can be developed, the best hope for protecting ourselves is slowing the spread of the disease. But how do we do that?

Travel bans are proving to be too little too late. It’s too easy to mistake the symptoms of coronavirus for a simple cold or flu. Even worse, since the virus can incubate for 14 days, carriers can spread it before they even know they’re sick.

We’ve already seen that happen in Washington State, where health officials believe some people were passing on their infections for up to six weeks. This long asymptomatic incubation period also renders airport screening ineffective. What’s the use of taking a passenger’s temperature if it’s going to be 98.6 degrees even when he or she is carrying the virus?

Likewise, protective gear such as masks and gloves works only if used correctly. Masks are supposed to be worn by sick people, or those caring directly for them. But when uninfected people wear hot, sweaty masks out in public, they will be more prone to touching their faces, which is also the Achilles’ heel of rubber gloves.

It doesn’t do any good to cover our hands if those hands are still touching infected surfaces before touching our eyes, nose or mouth. Those hands, gloved or ungloved, have to be sterilized in order to prevent transmission. Which is why washing hands is an important defense but by no means the only one.

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The best way to prevent “community spread” is to spread out the community. That means keeping people apart. No more handshakes, group photos and “free hugs” from those cosplayers at Comic-Con. In fact, it might mean no more Comic-Con for a little while, as well as no trade shows, concerts or any other events that draw a large crowd. This “disruption to everyday life” carries a huge financial risk — a risk of which I’m painfully aware.

I’ve built my career on the road, assembling a readership one handshake, hug and group photo at a time. I have a novel coming out this spring, and a speaking tour is vital to its success, as it has been for all my books. Now that tour might be canceled, and I’ve already had to pull out of two events. My book “Devolution” is about Bigfoot, and now I can’t even promote it in the Pacific Northwest.

But what is the alternative? Bring an infection home to my 93-year-old dad? Gather a large crowd in a room where they can all infect one another? As a writer who lives one book at a time, I’m the last person who should be practicing social distancing. But as a writer who roots my books in factual research, I know what history can teach us about community spread.

Editors’ Picks

Stocking Your Pantry, the Smart WaySorry, but Working From Home Is OverratedFor Me, Rewatching ‘Contagion’ Was Fun, Until It Wasn’t

In 1918, in Philadelphia, health officials ignored calls for social distancing and allowed a World War I victory parade to proceed. Within three days, all the hospital beds in the city were filled. Within a week, roughly 45,000 people were infected. Within six weeks, 12,000 were dead. The prospect of a repeat of that kind of mass manslaughter is frightening — especially when you consider that the 1918 influenza had a fatality rate of about 2.5 percent, compared to the 3.4 percent fatality rate for the coronavirus estimated by the World Health Organization.

We can learn a lot from history’s tragedies, but also from its triumphs. The plague that terrorized my generation, AIDS, was subdued by the same kind of public education, cultural flexibility and medical advances we need today. Back in the 1980s, when AIDS awareness tipped from denial to panic, our salvation didn’t come from a lab, but from a pamphlet. That piece of paper, “Understanding AIDS,” was mailed to almost every American home in 1988. Thanks to the pamphlet, along with a nationwide education offensive on safe sex, my generation learned that nothing, including love, was free.

RelatedOpinion | David Leonhardt: 7 Steps to Take Against the CoronavirusMarch 10, 2020Opinion | The Editorial Board: We Are Ignoring One Obvious Way to Fight the CoronavirusMarch 3, 2020N.Y. Creates ‘Containment Zone’ Limiting Large Gatherings in New RochelleMarch 10, 2020

We adapted then. We can adapt now. And we must. Just as in war, everyone has a role to play. If we all contribute to reducing community spread, we can buy enough time for science and industry to come up with a vaccine.

Does that mean hiding in a bunker with beans, bandages, and bullets? No, of course not. Panic is not preparation. Our plans should be guided by qualified experts like the C.D.C. We also have to keep a sharp eye out for the kind of stigmatization that harks back to the early days of AIDS.

Even before the virus started showing up throughout the United States, we’ve seen disgusting examples of what fear can do to the human spirit. In Southern California, a petition called for the closing of a largely Asian-American school district even though there was no evidence of any child being infected. In New York, an Asian woman wearing a face mask was assaulted by a man who called her “diseased.” Such panic-driven prejudice has no place in our war with the coronavirus.

Hopefully, if we all do our part now, we’ll soon be able to resume our lives, and go to such fun events as book signings, where I’ll be waving at you from seven feet away.

Max Brooks (@maxbrooksauthor), the author of “World War Z” and the forthcoming “Devolution,” is a senior nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

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Reprint

In pandemics, as in war, we all need to do our part.

By Max Brooks

Insert Ads Here

Mr. Brooks is the author of “World War Z.”

March 11, 2020

Grand Central Terminal had fewer commuters than usual on a Monday morning after a state of emergency was declared amid confirmed coronavirus cases in New York.
Grand Central Terminal had fewer commuters than usual on a Monday morning after a state of emergency was declared amid confirmed coronavirus cases in New York.
Credit…Brian Moss/Reuters

“Social distancing” might sound like an emotional phase in early adolescence (it certainly was for me) but in reality, it’s a public health term describing our best defense against the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this pathogen can spread “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).” That close contact has carried the virus across the planet, killing at least 4,000 people and infecting over 110,000 (that we know of). Until a vaccine — or even an effective treatment — can be developed, the best hope for protecting ourselves is slowing the spread of the disease. But how do we do that?

Travel bans are proving to be too little too late. It’s too easy to mistake the symptoms of coronavirus for a simple cold or flu. Even worse, since the virus can incubate for 14 days, carriers can spread it before they even know they’re sick.

We’ve already seen that happen in Washington State, where health officials believe some people were passing on their infections for up to six weeks. This long asymptomatic incubation period also renders airport screening ineffective. What’s the use of taking a passenger’s temperature if it’s going to be 98.6 degrees even when he or she is carrying the virus?

Likewise, protective gear such as masks and gloves works only if used correctly. Masks are supposed to be worn by sick people, or those caring directly for them. But when uninfected people wear hot, sweaty masks out in public, they will be more prone to touching their faces, which is also the Achilles’ heel of rubber gloves.

It doesn’t do any good to cover our hands if those hands are still touching infected surfaces before touching our eyes, nose or mouth. Those hands, gloved or ungloved, have to be sterilized in order to prevent transmission. Which is why washing hands is an important defense but by no means the only one.

Subscribe to The Times

The best way to prevent “community spread” is to spread out the community. That means keeping people apart. No more handshakes, group photos and “free hugs” from those cosplayers at Comic-Con. In fact, it might mean no more Comic-Con for a little while, as well as no trade shows, concerts or any other events that draw a large crowd. This “disruption to everyday life” carries a huge financial risk — a risk of which I’m painfully aware.

I’ve built my career on the road, assembling a readership one handshake, hug and group photo at a time. I have a novel coming out this spring, and a speaking tour is vital to its success, as it has been for all my books. Now that tour might be canceled, and I’ve already had to pull out of two events. My book “Devolution” is about Bigfoot, and now I can’t even promote it in the Pacific Northwest.

But what is the alternative? Bring an infection home to my 93-year-old dad? Gather a large crowd in a room where they can all infect one another? As a writer who lives one book at a time, I’m the last person who should be practicing social distancing. But as a writer who roots my books in factual research, I know what history can teach us about community spread.

Editors’ Picks

Stocking Your Pantry, the Smart WaySorry, but Working From Home Is OverratedFor Me, Rewatching ‘Contagion’ Was Fun, Until It Wasn’t

In 1918, in Philadelphia, health officials ignored calls for social distancing and allowed a World War I victory parade to proceed. Within three days, all the hospital beds in the city were filled. Within a week, roughly 45,000 people were infected. Within six weeks, 12,000 were dead. The prospect of a repeat of that kind of mass manslaughter is frightening — especially when you consider that the 1918 influenza had a fatality rate of about 2.5 percent, compared to the 3.4 percent fatality rate for the coronavirus estimated by the World Health Organization.

We can learn a lot from history’s tragedies, but also from its triumphs. The plague that terrorized my generation, AIDS, was subdued by the same kind of public education, cultural flexibility and medical advances we need today. Back in the 1980s, when AIDS awareness tipped from denial to panic, our salvation didn’t come from a lab, but from a pamphlet. That piece of paper, “Understanding AIDS,” was mailed to almost every American home in 1988. Thanks to the pamphlet, along with a nationwide education offensive on safe sex, my generation learned that nothing, including love, was free.

RelatedOpinion | David Leonhardt: 7 Steps to Take Against the CoronavirusMarch 10, 2020Opinion | The Editorial Board: We Are Ignoring One Obvious Way to Fight the CoronavirusMarch 3, 2020N.Y. Creates ‘Containment Zone’ Limiting Large Gatherings in New RochelleMarch 10, 2020

We adapted then. We can adapt now. And we must. Just as in war, everyone has a role to play. If we all contribute to reducing community spread, we can buy enough time for science and industry to come up with a vaccine.

Does that mean hiding in a bunker with beans, bandages, and bullets? No, of course not. Panic is not preparation. Our plans should be guided by qualified experts like the C.D.C. We also have to keep a sharp eye out for the kind of stigmatization that harks back to the early days of AIDS.

Even before the virus started showing up throughout the United States, we’ve seen disgusting examples of what fear can do to the human spirit. In Southern California, a petition called for the closing of a largely Asian-American school district even though there was no evidence of any child being infected. In New York, an Asian woman wearing a face mask was assaulted by a man who called her “diseased.” Such panic-driven prejudice has no place in our war with the coronavirus.

Hopefully, if we all do our part now, we’ll soon be able to resume our lives, and go to such fun events as book signings, where I’ll be waving at you from seven feet away.

Max Brooks (@maxbrooksauthor), the author of “World War Z” and the forthcoming “Devolution,” is a senior nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.