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Universal Social Distancing: The Ultimate Test for Business Leaders

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Brands Taking Stands
Social Distancing

Earlier this week, President Trump suggested that he would allow COVID-19 social distancing guidelines to lapse prematurely. In effect, he argued for enabling a deadly disease to race unchecked through a population of 327 million, potentially killing more than 2 million citizens. Surely leading brands will push back with all their might against such a reprehensible notion…won’t they?

The COVID-19 difference

In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, social distancing — literally, keeping people away from other people, including those stricken with the virus, of course — is the only way to stop the spread.

Generally speaking, the practice of social distancing is no big deal. People do it all the time. It’s the standard response when encountering someone with a cold, fever, pinkeye or any other obvious transmissible condition.

The problem is that many people can carry COVID-19 without showing it, or even knowing it. The symptoms can take days to emerge. In some cases, the symptoms don’t come up at all, or they are mistaken for other illnesses.

Making matters worse, the U.S. was slow to begin testing for COVID-19, and there is still a dire shortage of test kits. Unless there are special circumstances, few people without symptoms are being screened for COVID-19, making it more likely for people to spread the disease unwittingly.

Then there is the lethality factor. Catching COVID-19 is not a mild annoyance. It is a potential death sentence. There is no drug to reduce severe COVID-19 symptoms, let alone cure the disease. People with severe symptoms have to rely on ventilators to breathe while COVID-19 runs its course, all too often with fatal results.

In short, social distancing is different for COVID-19. It has to be universal, not selective, at least until many more people can be tested and screened. That will take weeks.

In the meantime, social distancing under COVID-19 has to be highly disruptive or it won’t work at all.

Meh, what’s a few more human lives

The effectiveness of a swift, aggressive, long-duration social distance strategy is supported by the experience of other countries with outbreaks, notably China and South Korea. The tragic consequences of inaction are amply demonstrated in others, such as Italy.

One nation that is especially relevant to the U.S experience is the United Kingdom. Even with the unfortunate example of Italy practically at his country’s doorstep, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially adopted a relaxed policy toward social distancing, much like President Trump.

Though health experts almost universally argued against it, the U.K. policy was based on the idea that a “soft” approach would result in more exposures more quickly, but it would also generate sufficient herd immunity to protect the population — eventually.

As may be expected, many people in the U.K. didn’t follow the gentle social distance guidance. The death toll mounted, and “eventually” became “not fast enough to avoid mass slaughter.” Earlier this week Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally issued strict lockdown orders.

Leading on social distancing from the top down

The global pattern is clear: forceful leadership from the top is the only way to enforce universal social distancing across a wide population. Simply suggesting or advising people to be careful is ineffective.

People certainly won’t be careful if shops, services and recreation areas are kept open.

Here in the U.S., a handful of mayors and governors got the message and locked down their jurisdictions, exempting only supermarkets and other businesses deemed essential.

Many leading U.S. retailers — with at least one notable exception — have also voluntarily shut down all their brick-and-mortar operations, even in states where they are still permitted to open their doors.

Nevertheless, last Sunday night President Trump suggested the economic upheaval of the past week has been too big a price to pay.

Trump tweeted: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”

He reiterated the same message during a press conference on Monday, stating that “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.”

Bottom line, it’s a pandemic: no more business as usual

It is not difficult to trace the process by which the President came to that conclusion, or to understand his personal interest in returning to business as usual.

The problem is, there is no business as usual in a pandemic.

As numerous commenters have pointed out, massive economic upheaval — “the cure,” as it were — is one and the same with “the problem itself.”

The results of prematurely dropping the ball on social distancing are not difficult to anticipate. Millions of people will go about their day, spreading disease, with millions of others incapacitated by severe symptoms, or skipping work to clog hospitals, morgues, funeral homes and cemeteries — and untold numbers of workers will be forced to stay home and care for the sick and dying.

That’s certainly no way to run an economy, and the sooner U.S. business leaders speak up and put an end to the president’s nonsense, the better.

For that matter, Trump left himself plenty of room to be argued out of his position.

After all, he did not say that businesses should open after 15 days. He only said he will make a decision about “which way we want to go” after 15 days.

Go for it, business leaders. The time to speak up is now, as millions of lives are at stake.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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