All signs pointed towards my mother not taking COVID-19 seriously. When they first canceled school, when we already suspected it wouldn’t be restarting, she sighed and said, “Well, we’ll be back in two weeks, anyway.” Less than two weeks later — and therefore less than the standard COVID-19 incubation period — she called and said she’d made some soup. I had thought she’d leave the soup on her front steps for me. Instead, she came to my house. This was not the social distancing I’d expected.
“You know I can’t take that from you,” I informed her. She rolled her eyes and laughed in a “humor the madman” sort of way, then set the pot of soup down. We talked for a while at the mandatory six-foot distance, which she treated like a joke.
“I don’t trust that she’s social distancing,” I told my husband. “And I saw her pick up a package with her bare hands and let herself into the house.” On the other hand, we have an elaborate mail protocol involving bleach, hours in the sunlight, and hand sanitizer (though it’s unlikely packages can carry COVID-19, there is a low risk).
Then she bought a dog off of Craigslist. She posted Facebook pictures of herself and her best friend cuddling the puppy. This was not social distancing. This was the opposite of social distancing, despite the memes she reposted, despite the “keep people safe, self distance” pictures she put on her Facebook wall. She had exposed herself to whomever she bought the dog from, plus her best friend. So if we were to see her, we would be dependent on them and their social distancing to stay safe.
My husband has weak lungs. I suffer from a health condition that weakens my immune system. We have three children. If we got sick, who would take care of them? Besides that, it’s up to all of us to contain the spread of the virus by practicing social distancing as much as possible. That means avoiding everyone who is not practicing proper social distancing — full stop.
When Your Relative Won’t Practice Social Distancing
Suddenly, you’re forced to confront a very, very uncomfortable reality: one even worse than The Abortion Issue or even The Trump Issue — worse because your life and the lives of those you love depend on your ability to confront it. You can’t sweep it under the rug, hide behind social politeness, or make a face and move on. You are absolutely forced to take a stand. You should do it every time, of course, but it’s easy to weasel your way out of most uncomfortable social situations. Not this one.
You have to look your relative in the eye from six feet away, or say over the phone, or type: “You are not practicing proper social distancing protocols, and when you don’t do that, you put your own life and the lives of those you love, like us, at risk. Therefore, we can’t see you. We can Skype/Zoom/FaceTime. We can message. But we cannot see you.”
You will be likely be accused of being overly paranoid, ridiculous, a freak, listening to “lamestream media,” told “it’s not that bad,” or that it “only kills as many people as the flu.” You will be subject to lies. You will be bombarded, barraged, and demonized.
Why They’re Freaking Out
Your relative will freak out because you are not only (in my case, at least) denying them access to their grandchildren, but also forcing them to confront the reality of COVID-19. And the reality of it is this: peak resource use is expected around April 15th, according to CNN, and even with social distancing, 82,000 people could die of the pandemic by August. That’s a hell of a lot of people — and it’s the White House prediction.
According to a study out of the University of Washington, it assumes all fifty states impose strict travel guidelines, shelter-in-place laws, and close nonessential businesses. Otherwise, the death toll could be far higher. According to USA Today, “the range of scenarios spans from 36,000 deaths to more than 152,000.” You’re making your loved one look this thing in the face when you enforce social distancing, and it terrifies them.
Enforcing social distancing is especially frightening to them because they’ve heard the reports. They know that COVID-19 kills older people, who are are more likely to be put on ventilators, and those with chronic health conditions. They also know that dying of COVID-19, according to CNN, often means dying alone — simply because relatives and friends aren’t allowed in the room to prevent the spread of the virus.
What You Should Do Instead
According to The Atlantic, there are much, much better ways to gently work with people who will not practice social distancing. First, you can remind them that social distancing isn’t about them — it’s to help other people. This isn’t about their personal Target deprivation, it’s to stop people from being infected. And to bolster that, rather than throwing numbers at them — like you may be tempted to do — use human faces. Say something like, “I’m scared for … because they’re really susceptible, and when we social distance, we help people like them.”
Vox recommends that YOU get your facts straight first. That way, you can say things like, “The CDC says …” or “The WHO recommends…” and people will be more likely to sit up and listen. You can talk about what you’re doing to combat the virus (especially your social distancing habits). They say you should “remove the imperative” or stop saying “you should” and replace it with “I am”: “I am staying home to help people who might get the virus from people who are asymptomatic,” for example. Or, “I have a chronic health condition that makes me more likely to be put on a ventilator, or worse, die from COVID-19.” Then you can offer an alternative, like: “Do you need anything? I can leave it on your porch.” Or, “Would you like to Skype with your grandkids?”
It sucks to have a relative who won’t comply with social distancing rules. But you have to stand up, and speak up: for yourself and for your family. Hopefully it will change their mind. Hopefully they’ll start practicing social distancing.
All you can do is keep trying to convince them, and don’t give up — because lives depend on it.