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Global Pandemic and Global Friendship

I keep hearing that we’re in a world of social distancing, but social distancing isn’t the right word. We need social connections more than ever to help keep us sane, but we need to physically distance ourselves from one another. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the novel coronavirus uses our physical connections as a transmission vector, and the better the in person connections, the more dangerous it is.(1)The coronavirus shows how connected we are. It spread from a single seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and a transportation hub. It then leveraged our global transportation network to travel to all parts of the world. Every infection in the world is connected to that first seafood market.(2)Coronavirus is the type fo virus. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease. Like AIDS is the disease caused by HIV.

Much Easier from the Chattanooga Times Press

The only way to prevent the disease from spreading is to avoid physical contact with anyone that might be infected. So there’s no more travel, no more in-person meetings, and no more chance meetings at the school playground. The only way to communicate with each other is through electronic means.(3)As a side note, my parents’ company, Norcon, makes a device called a Talk-Thru Unit which allows people to communicate in person through a pane of glass, allowing in-person,  virus-free, communication.

The coronavirus has flattened the world. With no more in-person contact, having a friend in Asia is the same as having a person down the street. My friend Marc told me that staying in touch with his friends today feels a lot like when he was teaching in China last year—it’s all over email and phone. The only difference is the time zones.

Some of my good friends from college have moved around the world. I wrote about how we’ve worked to stay in touch. While it’s a little difficult to connect with them due to different time zones, we’re all dealing with the same virus now.

A few months ago, my friend Ashwin told me about how he used the weather as a touchpoint with his daughter in Chicago. When they would talk on the phone, she would be able to tell him, “Dad, be prepared for some heavy rain!” because the weather in Chicago would be in New York 2 days later. With the coronavirus, we’re all connected (and consumed) by the same problem. The virus is hitting every city on earth, it’s just a matter of how many days it takes the coronavirus weather to get there.

My friend Christine is based in Milan and we chatted on March 12th. At the time, Italy had just started its strict home lockdown, with police and military enforcement.(4)People talk about a lockdown in the US but are enjoying jogging, walks in the park, chatting outside with neighbors from six feet away. In Italy, the police send you home and can fine you if they catch you jogging or out for a walk, even alone. The parks have been locked or closed off with police tape since even before the much stricter March 11 lockdown started. She was telling me about how her family was locked away in their apartment. The four of them were supposed to work 8 hour days on their work or school. They didn’t have solid WiFi and they weren’t even able to walk outside on the streets except to get groceries. I started to freak out and think, “Oh my. What if that happens here?!” Then I saw the statistics that the US is about 9 days behind Italy. The global wind carrying the coronavirus was giving us about 9 days before lockdown. This prompted us to move in with my parents in the suburbs, allowing us to have a little more room to work and some room to move outside without interacting with anyone else.(5)As it turns out, the US is still averse to the type of lockdown that Italy had. Hopefully what we’re doing will be enough.

I also chatted with my friend Seth, who’s a professor in Singapore. He told me that initially, he thought that Singapore was overreacting but now he realizes that their early actions of targeted aggressive quarantines prevented the exponential growth we see in other countries. Yes, it was frustrating and annoying but Singapore only has a small fraction of the cases as the US, despite finding its first infection around the same time. At the time, Seth had some frustrations. When I talked to him on March 8th, he was telling me about the rule that only 50 people could be in a room at any time, so his introductory computer science class with 450 students had to take their final across 9 rooms. “How silly and quaint,” I thought. But implementing rules like that allowed Singapore to avoid an exponential crisis and even keep their schools open.

Finally, I chatted with my friend Lutz in Germany. The coronavirus weather in Germany is a few days behind the US. Germany is more communal vs. the US which is more individual. He shared a couple of examples. When companies are in hard times, with or without coronavirus, the government will pitch in to keep workers employed. When workers have significantly reduced hours (ranging from 10% to 100% reduction) the company pays them for the actual time worked and the government pays the workers 2/3 of their resulting salary loss. In the US, we generally wait for the people to file for unemployment before we help them. He also told me about the chancellor’s address to the people. Normally the chancellor only addresses the people directly at her New Year’s address so this was a big thing. Very calmly, she said, “This is a big problem. People are dying. Please stay home.” And you know what those crazy Germans did? They stayed home.

There are two trends related to the communication I’m having with my global friends. I can talk with some friends more frequently because it’s just easy to communicate with someone around the world as down the street. However, in other ways, it’s more difficult. As Christine says from Italy, “I’ve been trying to spend less time in front of a screen, as we enter week 6 here of work and school from home every day.  Unfortunately aside from interacting with my immediate family in the apartment, social interactions typically require a screen now as well, be it for email or video calls with people.” So now the same channels that I use to communicate globally are filled with the formerly physical communications they had with coworkers.

The global pandemic shows how similar we are throughout the world. We’re all human fighting a common global enemy. Like I wrote about in What a Wonderful Word, we can focus on what divides us, but there are far more similarities between us.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The coronavirus shows how connected we are. It spread from a single seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and a transportation hub. It then leveraged our global transportation network to travel to all parts of the world. Every infection in the world is connected to that first seafood market.
2. Coronavirus is the type fo virus. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease. Like AIDS is the disease caused by HIV.
3. As a side note, my parents’ company, Norcon, makes a device called a Talk-Thru Unit which allows people to communicate in person through a pane of glass, allowing in-person,  virus-free, communication.
4. People talk about a lockdown in the US but are enjoying jogging, walks in the park, chatting outside with neighbors from six feet away. In Italy, the police send you home and can fine you if they catch you jogging or out for a walk, even alone. The parks have been locked or closed off with police tape since even before the much stricter March 11 lockdown started.
5. As it turns out, the US is still averse to the type of lockdown that Italy had. Hopefully what we’re doing will be enough.