By Nicholas A. Christakis
Citizens of democracies can scarcely fathom the extreme, but effective, social controls China has imposed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. But now we are seeing variations on China’s large-scale quarantines and travel restrictions in Italy, Israel and elsewhere. Such measures are certainly under consideration in many other countries. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) deployed the state’s National Guard to establish a one-mile containment zone in New Rochelle, a suburb of the nation’s most populous city. On Wednesday night, President Trump announced a ban on most travel from all European countries except for Britain.
A debate is raging in the United States about where to draw the line between individual freedoms and social responsibilities.
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But just as the coronavirus’s spread has forced us to consider suppressing our democratic impulses, it also calls on us to suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection: seeing our friends, getting together in groups or touching each other. Even spouses in the same household are implausibly advised to stay physically distant if one of them is sick.
None of this comes naturally to us, nor is it easy. In my own case, since I have spent much of my professional career studying marriage, friendship and social networks, and the health benefits they offer, I am finding it ironic to be strongly advising against human contact — but that’s what I’m doing.
We are being asked to do all this to protect the greater good. If we limit social contact, we can “flatten” the coronavirus epidemic by spreading out the same number of cases across a longer time horizon. That way, we will have fewer sick people at any given point, allowing health-care systems and supply chains to provide precious resources such as ventilators, beds for intensive-care units and, of course, medical staff.
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