In spite of 'socially distancing' …

I left New York abruptly last week, to get back home, in fear of being quarantined or stuck there. Among many plans that got disrupted, the least important one was my desire to visit the Met. It seems absurd even to me that I would think about that this morning.

Among many things I took to very late in my life, past 40, is a desire to discern the story of humanity thru the eyes of an artist. Having spent most of my life in linear world of Indian engineering education, a shallow MBA education and a mostly business career, this desire is a struggle like training your voice in operatic singing after it’s too late in life.

My last visit to the Met included me spending 30 minutes starting at the Ungolino and his sons, till I teared up overwhelmed by the scene at play. I was looking forward to seeing the display of Jean Antoine Houdon’s Winter.

Me: What is your greatest struggle right now?
Ugolino: My four sons have offered to sacrifice themselves for the sake of my survival. I’m struggling with my role as a parent, a man who wants the best for them, but have ended up dragging them down along with me.

Source: The Met

Ungolino and his sons conveys one of Dante’s hell of choosing one’s self preservation over your own children, who are more frail. Winter conveys the ugliness of seeing beauty in the midst of isolation and in adequacy caused by season underway.

Both seem to speak to me in these crazy times of isolation, the global pandemic ravaging our way of life and the everyday fear as a parent / partner / son if you are carrying the virus to unknowingly hurt your loved ones.

(Strong recommend you take advantage of the virtual tours offering by The Met as well as other leading museums around the world. Plant the seed of understanding the beauty in the dilemmas of everyday life through the eyes of world’s greatest artists early in your children’s lives)

The last few weeks have created a surge of esoteric terms in our daily vocabulary including “pandemic vs epidemic”, “community outbreaks”, “flattening the curve” and “social distancing”.

It’s the term ‘social distancing’ that intrigues me the most.

Social distancing is a set of nonpharmaceutical infection control actions intended to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. The objective of social distancing is to reduce the probability of contact between persons carrying an infection, and others who are not infected, so as to minimize disease transmission, morbidity and ultimately, mortality.

From the perspective of epidemiology, the basic goal behind social distancing is to decrease the basic reproduction number, R_{0}, which is the average number of secondary infected individuals generated from one primary infected individual in a population where all individuals are equally susceptible to a disease. In a basic model of social distancing, where a proportion f of the population engages in social distancing to decrease their interpersonal contacts to a fraction a of their normal contacts, the new effective reproduction number  R is given by {\displaystyle R=[1-(1-a^{2})f]R_{0}}

Becker, Niels (2015). Modeling to Inform Infectious Disease Control. CRC Press.

For example, 25% of the population reducing their social contacts to 50% of their normal level gives an effective reproduction number about 81% of the basic reproduction number. A seemingly small reduction but profound in delaying the exponential growth and spread of a disease.

Makes sense. The virus spreads because it is helped by the exponential number of possibilities as interactions increase, cutting off the number of touch points can significantly reduce the opportunities to spread and in turn slow the spread of the virus.

The case for social distancing is made even more compelling by the fact that the old and infirm are disproportionately at risk than young and healthy. Not distancing yourself from the vulnerable or more importantly not isolating yourself to prevent playing the role of a carrier is willing playing a part in killing our parents or grand parents.

Here in lies the struggle we are having in many places and with many people. As it seems the risk of mortality is lower for the young and healthy, many groups have been slow and reluctant to sacrifice their personal lifestyles or freedom for imperceptible risk to an unknown elder or stranger.

Over the last few decades many societies have moved towards nuclear families and extreme individualism. So when you see the last 3 bottles of sanitizer left in the grocery store, it doesn’t bother most to pick up all three. The run on supplies at the local stores and shortages in many places due to artificial stocking by everyone seems so natural to us. Our highly sophisticated gate community has people stealing milk packets left outside the door.

The reluctance to fall in line with the advisory by many local governments and stubborn socializing till there is a mandatory ‘Shelter In’ policy in place, may all relate to this underlying culture of self-centricity.

I wonder if this cultural aspect has to do with the inability to get the necessary compliance, as well as lack of realization of the true cost of not sacrificing one’s individualistic view of life.

Avatar movie has stunning symbolism and visual images of how the Na’vi people see their lives as one connected network of each other and the world around them. This was the same theme for many native tribes.

The scene where Na’vi are trying to save Grace’s life by being one with the life force Eywa

So as I look back at week one of complete social distancing, I am wondering if we need to physically distance ourselves while we emotionally get closer to each other.

Next time you are on one of the innumerable conference calls of WFH, consider to think how your team is trying to work in spite of their congested apartment. If you get a LinkedIn invite from a small company selling you their product / service – instead of deleting it try and imagine if there is a small start up out there running out of cash looking for just one more positive signal before they decide to shut shop. Think about your laundry store or ironing ‘guy’ who is probably wondering how long this WFH will last – as demand as well as weekly cash earning has dried up over night … see if you can offer a three month advance proactively. Think how depressing and lonely your teams much be, and how much they miss hanging out at chai point / coffee machine. For once think about your admin / IT team toiling to make your company’s WFH policy work smoothly for everyone.

May be it’s time to heed the advice of the ages. That we are all one and connected to each other.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Sanskrit: वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम. from “vasudha”, the earth; “iva”, is ; and “kutumbakam”, family) is a Sanskrit phrase that means that the whole world is one single family.

Maha Upanishad, VI.71-73 (A Hindu scripture)

May be it’s time to come together, and not distance from each other – even while we need to physically separate and isolate ourselves for the next few months.

I hope the world comes out of this crisis more connected, not thru technology / travel like in the last few decades – but thru human emotion and love.

Published by SridharTuraga

A dad. A partner. A son. A problem solver. A learner. A teacher.

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