Social distancing is going to get darker

There will be costs that have nothing to do with GDP statistics or the prices of stocks


If the sort of things that most of us are seeing on social media and in our favorite publications is any indication, life under lockdown or shelter-in-place or whatever we are now calling the unilateral suspension of civilization across roughly half the globe is some kind of secular retreat. Here, finally, we are told, is a chance to read all those books gathering dust on the shelves — but not for long: we're cleaning, you see — and learn how to sew and make orange macaroons and play German board games with 450-page instruction manuals. Do things, we keep telling each other. Go on Zoom with Grandma, start a Proust club or host a virtual craft beer tasting. Play a video game with your dog.

There is nothing wrong with these serial inducements to government-approved indoor activity. Making the best of a bad situation is a universal human impulse and a more or less wholesome one. But it is important to recognize that for every person bent on using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to brush up on Urdu or figure out what to do with a fridge full of ricotta and lemons, there are just as many others for whom no amount of buck-up self improvement will make this experience better than miserable.

Let's start with people who have no choice but to be in close quarters with those from whom they would be better off far away. Already there are reports both in the United States and abroad of increased domestic violence under lockdown conditions. As usual, the people on the receiving end of most of this are children and women, who are running into pharmacies shouting codewords. The French government is booking hotel rooms for thousands of women fleeing violent men with whom they would otherwise be stuck for weeks or months. This situation is only going to get worse.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Even for those who are not facing the terrible threat of assault or worse by members of their households, there are significant concerns related to mental health. People already inclined to depression and anxiety are unlikely to improve their situation under the present conditions. I cannot be the only American of late who has found himself taking his temperature obsessively. We magnify every tiny would-be symptom. My back hurts opposite my lungs? Is this new? For about 15 seconds there I had a slight metallic taste in my mouth. Wait, is that a cough? In the vast majority of cases, what we are experiencing is of no importance. Alas, even hypochondriacs will think twice about running to the pharmacy or the nearest urgent care facility. Instead, they will remain at home, driving themselves mad.

This is to say nothing of the very real possibility of more incidents like the recent attempt by a man in Los Angeles to drive a train into a Navy ship serving as a makeshift hospital. As usual, the motivation here — apparently some conspiracy theory — is not relevant in any formal sense. Speculating about the reasons a train engineer might have for thinking he would make the world a better place by attacking a seaborne medical facility is a fool's errand. The man is a lunatic, like many lunatics before him and I daresay many to come. Thank heaven no one was injured. But how would our country respond right now to what we call "mass shootings" or other acts of domestic terrorism? Are states like Virginia that have extended shelter-in-place orders through June ready for what could prove to be long, hot summers?

Ours is, not to put too fine a point on it, a sick country under what passes for ordinary circumstances. What should we expect to happen when we subject our already atomized population to months of enforced social isolation amid a likely economic depression? Misery and violence, perhaps widespread.

None of this should be taken to suggest that things must return to normal immediately. But we should acknowledge that there are real human costs to the shuttering of life as we knew it. These are costs that have nothing to do with GDP statistics or the prices of stocks. Man is a social animal, an animal who becomes himself in the society of others. We should not be even remotely surprised when, deprived of that society, of his own volition or otherwise, he starts to behave like a different sort of animal.

Our response to this pandemic is not a vacation. It is not an adventure, a learning experience, an opportunity for improving your mind or developing new skills and hobbies, though more power to you, I suppose, if you do manage any of those things under the circumstances. It is a series of desperate measures (indeed constitutionally speaking the most desperate in modern history) undertaken, one hopes, with the utmost reluctance. In order to save the possibility of normal life in the future, we must suspend it now. We should at least do so in full knowledge of what that is likely to mean.

Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.