A few years ago, a woman in my suburb died and no-one noticed for days. Eventually, the newsagent saw that the papers he delivered weren't being picked up and called the police. She'd been dead about a week.
She was someone we'd occasionally see in the street and wave hello, exchange chat, but nothing routine. She was socially isolated, first by circumstance and then by choice, the older and grumpier she got. I once had a conversation with her about loneliness and she told me she didn't know what it was. I too have never felt lonely a day in my life. On the rare occasions I'm alone, I've been grateful rather than frightened.
But my experience with the woman who lived nearby has made me anxious about my relatives and friends who are not out and about on a regular basis. That's been heightened by the recent call to use social distancing as a way to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Social distancing means, according to the US Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), "remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 metres) from others when possible". I have no idea how to do this when I live in the city and teach in a classroom but maybe I need buy one of those Bubble Soccer outfits. I quite like the idea of being able to bounce around.
Anyhow, there have also been calls for people to work from home, or, again as the CDC puts it, to avoid close contact with anyone, like being within two metres of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time. That can happen while caring for, living with, visiting, or sharing a healthcare waiting area or room with a COVID-19 case or, grossly, having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case, such as being coughed on or sneezed at. Trust the CDC to be as blunt as possible.
I'm up for any or all of this avoidance except we will need to ramp up our way of staying connected in case social distancing turns to social isolation. I have this terrible fear that some Australians will experience the double impact of coronavirus. Their few friends and connections won't be visiting and maybe those friends and connections will be having their own challenging experience so mightn't be as on-the-ball as usual.
Social isolation can be by choice. It's having a limited number of contacts and people you interact with. Some of us just don't like too much interaction. Living alone, social isolation, loneliness and social distancing aren't the same thing and as our relationships are challenged by coronavirus, we need a nuanced understanding of the difference in order to protect the vulnerable.
For some people, the changes we might be forced to make in the face of coronavirus will prove really difficult and some are already struggling.
I asked epidemiologist Margo Barr to explain it all to me. Barr, associate professor at the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity within the University of NSW, says it's about the disjunction between what we have and what we want. Do we want just to have a handful of people with whom we have close contact? Or do we feel sad and lonely because we need and want to be more connected.
For some people, the changes we might be forced to make in the face of coronavirus will prove really difficult and some are already struggling. The daily barrage of information, misinformation and mishandling can stress even the most serene.
But as Barr says, "It's having the mechanisms to make sure we can help people get through these changes."
There is more we can do. We can make sure our friends and family are well-connected. That you've set up group chats on whatever mechanism you've got, for those who feel comfortable with WhatsApp, Messenger or whatever. Make times to check in. Ensure that anyone who has to stay home is well set-up. Books, music, the ABC Listen app. Barr says having meaningful activity to do while at home is important. Keeping the mind active, having some rituals and routines give some structure to the day.
I feel very sad for those new families who can no longer go to baby classes or playgroup because it's safer to keep away from the snotty and sneezy. But at least those of us who love the internet may find it easier to stay socially connected.
It's not so easy for those who can't or won't internet and we have a couple of generations of those. If we love and appreciate those people, the 97-year-old great aunt, the elderly neighbour who doesn't get too many visitors, we will need to ensure that the way we change our behaviours over the next weeks and months will take them into account. Love might include deliberate phone calls to people you mightn't otherwise ring. We know that older folks don't like to pick up their phones anymore for fear of scamming and spamming and some don't like the modern gadgetry of mobiles. But maybe visiting now to explain that if we are forced into something beyond social distancing onto the Roman model of get off the streets right now, you will have a system for contacting each other. Like the system we set up with our teenagers when mobile calls cost a fortune. Two rings, then another two rings, then we would ring them back. Some little smoke signal to make sure you can contact each other.
That's how we must show love in the time of coronavirus.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.