How did I get here? And you over there?: A brief history of social distancing

Social distancing wasn't a guaranteed response, but the tale of how it became our nation's marching orders to a pandemic is a richly interesting one.

How did I get here? And you over there?: A brief history of social distancing
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

To what do we owe this fresh hell? Admit it; you’ve thought it at some point during your bout of social distancing and self-quarantine. Maybe your stir-craziness isn’t enough to make protesting in the streets seem like a good idea, but you’re certainly entitled to feel a bit antsy.

What might come as a surprise is the provenance of the federal social distancing policy. It wasn’t always guaranteed that social distancing would be our national response.

Consider these lines from a New York Times story by Eric Lipton and Jennifer Steinhauer on the birth of social distancing:

The concept of social distancing is now intimately familiar to almost everyone. But as it first made its way through the federal bureaucracy in 2006 and 2007, it was viewed as impractical, unnecessary and politically infeasible.

“There were two words between ‘shut’ and ‘up’” initially, said Dr. Howard Markel, who directs the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine and who played a role in shaping the policy as a member of the Pentagon research team. “It was really ugly.”

I love this story, if for no other reason than its angle. It takes an issue that we’re discussing daily, that’s shaping our lives in monumental ways, and asks the simple question that’s so easy to overlook: How did this come to be our response?

It’s interesting to think about the disconnect between our faith in our own ingenuity and the relative low-tech solution that social distancing represented. Lipton and Steinhauer again:

Fourteen years ago, two federal government doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, met with a colleague at a burger joint in suburban Washington for a final review of a proposal they knew would be treated like a piñata: telling Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.

When they presented their plan not long after, it was met with skepticism and a degree of ridicule by senior officials, who like others in the United States had grown accustomed to relying on the pharmaceutical industry, with its ever-growing array of new treatments, to confront evolving health challenges.

Drs. Hatchett and Mecher were proposing instead that Americans in some places might have to turn back to an approach, self-isolation, first widely employed in the Middle Ages.

How that idea — born out of a request by President George W. Bush to ensure the nation was better prepared for the next contagious disease outbreak — became the heart of the national playbook for responding to a pandemic is one of the untold stories of the coronavirus crisis.

The story is full of such rich details; for example, it will take you to a high school science fair project, a detail that one day might confound screenwriters trying to tell this story for the big screen as quite possibly too hokey to be believable. The story will tell you the history of two major American cities – Philadelphia and St. Louis – as representative cases for the competing approaches surrounding social distancing.  The same types of debates over the same issues that are sending people into the streets with signs in recent days were being had in 1918.

When social distancing was being suggested as the nation’s response playbook in the mid-2000s, there was pushback then, as well. The Times article continues:

One particularly vociferous critic was Dr. D.A. Henderson, who had been the leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox and had been named by Mr. Bush to help oversee the nation’s biodefense efforts after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Dr. Henderson was convinced that it made no sense to force schools to close or public gatherings to stop. Teenagers would escape their homes to hang out at the mall. School lunch programs would close, and impoverished children would not have enough to eat. Hospital staffs would have a hard time going to work if their children were at home.

The measures embraced by Drs. Mecher and Hatchett would “result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems,” Dr. Henderson wrote in his own academic paper responding to their ideas.

The answer, he insisted, was to tough it out: Let the pandemic spread, treat people who get sick and work quickly to develop a vaccine to prevent it from coming back.

Dr. Henderson’s point of view didn’t win out; social distancing became our go-to solution in the event of a pandemic. It’s not without its controversy, but as painful as its requirement are for life as we know it, its effectiveness is hard to deny.

Do yourself a favor and read up on how we came to be a socially distant nation:

The Untold Story of the Birth of Social Distancing | The New York Times


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