The Limits of COVID-19 Social Policing

For months Americans have engaged in social policing of their neighbors regarding visions of “social distancing” as subjectively conceived in their own minds. For some Americans, no amount of social distancing will suffice to respond to the COVID crisis, and the demands for purity continue to escalate as the virulent anger over the supposedly non-compliant reaches a fever pitch. However, these efforts at social policing may be counter-productive in the long run.

Where these social distancing extremists see social deviance in perceived social distancing violations, I see an encouraging sign. The fact that people are continuing to go outside to parks to exercise and socialize during this frightening crisis is a reminder of the innate will to live that continues to exist in humanity. No matter how bad a crisis, people will continue to try to live their lives and will continue to be social. It is the beautiful triumph of humanity over adversity.

The anger displayed at these acts of living are baffling. Living and socializing are a part of human nature. It is unreasonable to expect otherwise and, in my opinion, inhumane. You do not have to agree with me, but if you are really that invested in containment through social distancing, heed my warning:

The more extreme quarantine measures become, the less compliance can be expected and the less effective the measures will be. People are going to continue to live their lives. They are going to continue to socialize. The more extreme policing of social distancing gets, the more the salutary effects of social distancing will be undermined. Absent going full on 1984-totalitarian, surveillance state (Please tell you don’t want that because I am starting to wonder at the suggestions espoused by some people!), you cannot stop human nature (and even then there would be attempts at subversion).

As the weather grows increasingly warmer and more beautiful, the social distancing extremists are targeting for their ire the continued use of parks and public spaces for recreation, which is utterly short-sighted. If you push people out of public spaces, they are not going to stop socializing. They are merely going to take it inside where you can no longer see and therefore can no longer police it.

Social distancing taken too far will only create as a side effect a burgeoning underground movement of parties and socials that will be the antithesis of social distancing. The compressed space, the privacy, and the thrill of subversiveness will all conspire to create an environment in which social distancing rules are flouted with abandon. And since they will no longer be in the open, outdoor air where a breeze will cause the quick dispersal of viral particles, the risk of transmissibility will be higher in these private spaces. Consequently, more extreme policing will be counterproductive in the end by incentivizing the creation of opportunities for the social interactions that social distancing aims to minimize.

There are two choices. With a permissive style, society accepts that socializing is inevitable in exchange for greater oversight and control over the social activities that will largely continue to take place in public spaces. However, an authoritarian response of attempting to institute social restraints that individuals find too constricting will result in people taking their social activities into more private and secluded spaces, which will ultimately lead to more risky, less distanced interactions.

It is a balancing act. For a truly effective containment strategy, human behavior as it is—not some unrealistic, idealized version of what some people would like human nature to be—has to be accepted. Though it may be counter-intuitive, if society wants to keep a handle on social distancing, it will be better off being permissive rather than draconian.

As we head into summer and more and more people take advantage of the weather, keep in mind that any momentary satisfaction you may get at enforcing others to comply with your purest vision of social distancing may be outweighed by a rebellious counter-reaction. In the end, compassion for the needs and desires of your fellow citizens will be a far more effective tool for viral containment than shaming.

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