It is perhaps the loneliest and not the fittest, that are most likely to avoid COVID-19. “Lockdowns,” social distancing, and “independent” living are nothing new to people who live isolated, hermit-like lives. They live off-grid, away from crowds, and keep to themselves. They put a premium on privacy, and rarely use the internet or social media accounts.
Their neighbors barely know them as they are uninclined to socialize. They see relatives only occasionally, if ever, and maintain only a small group of friends. They probably grow some of their own food in a small garden, and maintain a compost pit for their garbage. A bi-monthly drive to the bank and the grocery is enough to sustain them, for they are usually well-stocked.
They have no interest in shopping malls, the movies, or dining in restaurants. They do not like crowds and noisy gatherings. They are more comfortable with a book and soft music, and maybe a glass of wine or two. Even at work, if at all they are still in the race, they practically keep to themselves. They avoid company social functions and skip after-work drinks. And their work areas are almost always “clinically clean and clear,” and lack personal effects.
We scoff at their strict standards for personal hygiene. They wash too often, we say. We also note that they spend a lot of time cleaning and clearing and straightening their work station, and are easily bothered even by hints of dust or strong smells. We refer to some of them as “Obsessive-Compulsive.” Often, however, we simply call them weird or “eccentric.”
But with what is happening now around the world, it seems they knew something most of us did not. Apparently, isolation — or getting used to being alone for long periods of time — and the obsession with cleanliness have their merits. Being “generally clean” is no longer enough nowadays, obviously. The present situation calls for extra measures, and perhaps not only in the short term.
Even the wealthiest are not expected to fare any better than the loneliest in living in the time of corona. That at least one private hospital, the expensive kind, is rumored to already be turning away COVID-19 patients is enough indication to me that our healthcare system is about to be overwhelmed. And that access to medical care is no longer just a matter of cost and having money.
They way we live our lives is surely going to change. Some initiatives will have to give way to the needs of the present. For instance, we may have to reverse or temporarily halt the initiative to do away with disposable cups and throw-away cutlery as measures to address environmental concerns, particularly the negative impact of widespread plastic use and the shortage in landfill space.
Lucky for those with weekend homes outside the capital region, or those with relatives in nearby provinces and residences in the mountains or by the beach, away from madding crowds. If they can afford to be away meantime, that is. I reckon those in densely populated urban areas are at most risk of getting sick with COVID-19.
But for the most of us stuck in the metropolis, pretty much like those stranded in the capital every time a calamity hits, then we just need to make the best of the situation. If the situation worsens, and it probably will, then a lockdown of the National Capital Region is a possibility. And, if that happens, I am certain even the government will have difficulty containing civil unrest. There may be dire consequences for both the government and the public.
To avoid that possibility, and to help curtail the spread of COVID-19, perhaps there is merit in taking “social distancing” to the next level. It will take a lot of discipline, and will require much sacrifice, but people should just avoid other people, meantime. Staying home, if possible, especially for children while school is out, should be encouraged if not strictly observed.
It has been said about guns that it is better to have them and not need them, than to need them and not have them. In the same line, taking hygiene precaution to an extreme is perhaps called for in our present situation. Cancel events, miss gatherings, and put off unnecessary travel, even locally. Washing hands, disinfecting, and avoiding physical contact should be the norm, meantime.
The use of disposable cups, plates, and cutlery — even those made of plastic — should be tolerated meantime in restaurants, coffee shops, and other food service establishments. Or, at the very least, temporarily go back to the old practice of wrapping clean utensils in napkins, or leaving them submerged in hot water, prior to taking them out for use by diners.
In schools and offices with cafeterias, students and workers should be required to bring their own food containers and utensils, even disposable ones, just to avoid the sharing of contaminated wares. Coffee shops should temporarily suspend the use of washable cups and mugs, and all food service personnel should use gloves.
The other day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a parking cashier donning rubber gloves, but was disappointed to hear that her employer supplied her with only one pair. I think all cashiers, even in supermarkets, and all bank tellers, should be regularly supplied with rubber gloves and masks by their employers if they are expected to continue manning service front lines.
And, for companies that can operate with employees working from home, this should be the norm while the public health emergency remains. Meantime, all corporate travel, branch and site visits, gatherings and functions, meetings and conferences should be postponed to later dates. The same goes for schools, and perhaps even for churches.
My greatest concern, however, is with public transportation. I am at a loss as to how we can effectively curtail COVID-19 transmission particularly in jampacked trains, jeepneys, buses, and even tricycles. At best, people can wear masks and keep their hands clean, as they also refrain from touching their faces. The secondary approach is to limit travel itself by allowing people to work from home and children to do home study meantime.
In my opinion, social distancing, or temporarily keeping away from other people, is the most effective way of limiting transmission of COVID-19. But it is also among the most difficult initiatives to take. People, by nature, are social beings. However, extreme situations call for extreme measures. This is one step that we should all be ready to undertake, unless we wish to leave the metropolis to only the lonely.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.