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“Social Distancing” Needs Civic Guidelines, Not Political Partisanship

Even before the World Health Organization publicly characterized the coronavirus disease 2019 (“COVID-19”) as a pandemic, a New York Times article (3/1/20) warned that “a growing public health crisis has turned into one more arena for bitter political battle.” [1] Allowing our individual political bias to impact our personal behavior during this pandemic is more than unfortunate—it could be deadly to thousands in our area and millions across our country.

The ‘science’ behind our response to this critical situation will work, whether one believes in science or not. Because we do not have antiviral medications nor vaccines to attack, cure, and prevent COVID-19, we must rely on interventions that reduce infectious contacts between persons such as “social distancing” [2] which has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to slow the spread and transmission of COVID-19.

The decision to undertake social distancing was based on analyzing data from the 1918 influenza pandemic when there were 500,000–675,000 deaths in the U.S. and 50–100 million deaths worldwide. On September 28, 1918 Philadelphia, PA held a previously planned parade to celebrate the end of WWI. Over 200,000 attended. By October 12 of that year 4,500 people had died. By the end of the pandemic, 16,000 people died in that city. St Louis, on the other hand, canceled public gatherings in churches, schools, and theaters and had one of the lowest death rates over the course of the pandemic with only 1703 deaths [3]. Social distancing is one of the few weapons we have in our pandemic prevention arsenal, along with washing hands and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. And it can work.

But social distancing is a challenge because it disrupts many aspects of our daily lives including participating in fundamental economic necessities, such as traveling to work, perhaps on public transportation, and spending time in proximity to other employees and/or customers. Social aspects of everyday life are also severely impacted and canceling highly anticipated events such as sporting events, vacations, birthday parties or weddings will be disappointing but can save lives. Those activities which make life worth living like going to the gym, visiting elderly family members, eating out at restaurants, going to nightclubs and bars, participating in community activities such as fund-raisers or book clubs also must be curbed—temporarily.

The success of this practice will ultimately depend on how we respond as individuals. It is up to each one of us to do our utmost to set aside our political predilections and respond responsibly to this directive. [LB1] The threat is serious. And we must respond with seriousness to this situation. If we fail, by April 7, 2020, the lives of hundreds of individuals could be jeopardized right here in King and Snohomish counties [chart in the Seattle Times of 03/12/20 from the Institute for Disease Modeling, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center] [4].

To overcome this pandemic, we must put people over politics and strengthen our individual commitment to “civic guidelines” that have sustained American democracy in the past. These guidelines include the notion of mutual responsibility, which was a previously accepted societal norm that dictates that each citizen has a responsibility to do what’s best for each other and the country as a whole. Mutual responsibility rests on an awareness of our interdependence: in the span of 24 hours, the average American’s life is entrusted to more than 2,000 different people who are complete strangers.

Mutual responsibility has been championed by several civic leaders. Nine years ago, in their book “Gardens of Democracy”, Seattle-based Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer wrote: “…every problem the society faces is everyone’s problem…we are bound up in each other’s choices…we are not separate...we are deeply, irretrievably interdependent... true self-interest is mutual interest.” [5]

In the July 14, 2019 issue of The Seattle Times, Basil Hero deciphered the nature of “The Right Stuff,” referring to the courage and bravery of the first astronauts who walked on the moon. According to Hero, “The Right Stuff” revolves around two virtues, “the common good” and “believing in something greater than oneself.” Hero also quoted Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, “People today need to think more about serving the common good instead of their own selfish needs.”

What is this “common good”? For that we turn to Robert Reich (Professor at UC Berkeley, former Secretary of Labor) who said, “The Common Good consists of our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society—the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.”

Although being liberal or conservative has become a form of social identity, the pandemic nature of COVID-19 attacks without asking for one’s political affiliation first. This reality should compel us to put aside our politics to protect not only our lives, but the lives of the most vulnerable among us. As elegantly stated by Dr. Manya Arond-Thomas, “If we seize the moment, we have not only the opportunity to create a new story but an opportunity for healing at individual, group, and collective levels.” [6]

We have limited time to slow the spread of COVID-19 and it will require the cooperation of every citizen here in our community and across the country to practice social distancing. The life you save may be your own—or it may be the life of a fellow citizen that you don’t even know or agree with politically. But hopefully, you will agree with this. We must all take responsibility for the “common good” by accepting the challenge to participate in the practice of social distancing to mitigate the impact of this pandemic. Putting people over politics is the only way to save us all.


2. PNAS, vol. 104 (18) 7582-87; May 1, 2007.

5. Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy (Seattle, Sasquatch Books, 2011).

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