Opinion: An Alternative to Social Distancing for COVID-19

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By Caitlin Waddick | Ph.D.

Social distancinglockdownstravel bans, and quarantines because of concern over the novel coronavirus are not strategies that promote public health. They aren’t substantiated by public health research. I believe there are better alternatives to social distancing. There are healthcare measures we can take that are more effective, more equitable, less expensive, less violent, and less isolating.

Social distancing is supposed to be about “flattening the curve.” Its goal is not to reduce the total number of deaths from COVID-19 (called case fatality), but to reduce case severity and hospitalization over time. This assumption is that our more limited interactions will lessen the degree to which individual people will get sick and the number of sick people hospitalized at one time. But what if social distancing achieves neither of those objectives?

We keep talking about the number of ventilators that are available. Ventilators are being distributed through bidding systems, in which hospital suppliers bid against each other and supplies go to the highest bidder. This practice is criminal from an ethical viewpoint, but is “normal” for how our society works. That is not public health!

Social distancing hurts people socially, economically, physically, and psychologically. Many Americans are already too socially isolated and don’t get enough exercise and outdoor movement. Many of us are living on the edge economically. Many of us are already feeling politically disempowered. Younger adults, especially, are more anxious and fearful than ever before. Most of us worry that our opinions don’t matter. Being isolated from others, told we should not hug our friends or shake each other’s hands, and urged to practice social distancing worsens these existing problems.

Moreover, many of the negative effects of socially distancing are unequally distributed. Social distancing leaves people who are already disadvantaged even worse off. Wealthier people can afford to work from home and “stock up” on essentials, but most lower and middle class Americans often don’t have the job security, internet access, or opportunity to work remotely. Half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Fifty to 70 million people are expected to be unemployed by the end of April 2020. Many are losing their health insurance. We are already seeing a rise in suicides as people grapple with their losses.

Food as medicine should be our starting point. But instead people have less food access than ever before. America was already a hungry nation. Now, demand at food banks has increased. We’re all worried: Will there be food shortages?

Social distancing and hate foster panic, not public health

People who aren’t practicing social distancing are being vilified, decried as “selfish,” “narcissistic,” and “ableists” for their purported unwillingness to sacrifice for others. We are now imagining each individual as a walking bio-weapon, whether that person is in robust health, has the common cold, or is actually infected with coronavirus. We are now living in fear of other humans and seeing everyone around us as walking health hazards. That’s not how I want to think of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Many chiropractors, acupuncturists, physical therapists, and other health providers have closed. They are not seeing clients, some of whom are themselves health providers. All healthcare providers are trained in mental health support. When we cancel personal health options, we impact public health.

Social distancing is a mental health nightmare. People who need their friends and healthcare providers are separated. People’s emotional stress is very high: panic, fear, grief, loss, and anxiety are more widespread than coronavirus and adversely impact health. Some people are stuck inside with their abusers. I am alarmed by the people who are at home drinking alcohol and succumbing to other addiction habits because they lost their social supports. Teens and young people are depressed about not graduating and not having their part-time jobs; they don’t qualify for unemployment.

Social control, coercion, and hate do not foster public health.

Public health officials, educators, and politicians are telling us we must be obsessively clean. They are disinfecting entire schools, recommending the use of hand sanitizer, and suggesting we bleach our lives. Yet the cleaning strategies being rigorously promoted also aren’t helping. Like social distancing, this obsession with cleanliness may be harmful to our personal, public, and environmental health.

Washing your hands frequently with harsh chemicals is terrible for your skin. Our skin is our primary protection against germs. Toxic chemicals being used to kill germs contain immunosuppressants and endocrine disruptors. These substances can harm the immune system; many products, such as chlorine bleach, cause adverse health effects in production, use, and disposal.

Our “democratic” government and private sectors are using new powers to shutdown borders, enforce quarantines and lock downs, and collect personal data. Police pull cars over on the roads to interrogate the drivers and passengers, and in some areas, they can be held without bond for violating stay-at-home orders. In other countries, police have beaten people up for being on the streets. Digital surveillance has expanded to adversely impact human rights far into the future. Are we so concerned about social distancing that we are giving up political, civil, and labor rights?

What we should be doing is emphasizing vitalism and using germ theory in the context of holistic health.

Vitalism is a paradigm for public action to achieve public health that emphasizes the fundamental vitality of our own bodies in the face of germs. Public actions should promote actual health based on what we know makes our bodies healthier, not based on the needs of a for-profit health industry.

A tax on all products containing refined sugar would help us fight coronavirus and many other health problems, including diabetes, tooth decay, and even heart disease. Sugar exposures reduce the immune system by 50% for many hours.

Subsidizing fresh fruit for everyone so that even poor people can benefit from essential nutrients for immunity would be another excellent strategy. We should subsidize a variety of health products and services. Vitamin C supplementation is effective against a spectrum of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, not just coronavirus. The government could subsidize products for everyone, or at least for vulnerable populations.

The importance of peace of mind, hydration, and movement for health and wellbeing could be promoted. Clinical and laboratory studies around the world suggest that antiviral herbs—available locally in our bioregions—are effective in strengthening the immune system against a spectrum of viruses. We can empower people to strengthen their bodies to live with a community of viruses and other pathogens that shape and define the human condition. We need not wait for a commercial vaccine to do what improving nutrition, hygiene, and sanitation can do better.

A vitalistic approach would include mutual aid networks so that people who need care can connect with people who offer care. We can choose to meet each other with deep respect and connection—as well as with hugs. Most people prefer solidarity over suspicion.

Free testing for coronavirus exposure and immunity, and universal healthcare

And, really, why aren’t we providing free testing? People who actually need to quarantine themselves should and could. Testing and self-isolating are two strategies used in South Korea and Sweden, where the coronavirus is doing much less damage than elsewhere. This testing should be confidential and anonymous, so we can make our own choices about our own bodies, and not risk harassment in our communities.

And, why are we not testing for antibodies? If we tested for antibodies in the general population, we might even find that many people have been exposed, were asymptomatic, and have recovered. People who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and recovered can be promoted to the “frontlines” in various industries, especially in healthcare. Immunity, we may find, could last for several years. What if most of the population has already built up resistance to this novel virus? Scientific models show this situation is likely. Also, coronaviruses tend to evolve to become less severe and less fatal. Why not assume that COVID-19 infections will evolve like other viruses in its class?

The healthcare industry, which makes a big impact on the infection rate, is not doing what they can. Hospitals aren’t isolating COVID-19 patients from other patients; doctors and nurses who test positive for COVID-19 are still working with healthy patients; they aren’t using air filters in hospital rooms; and, telemedicine solutions are not being implemented.

And, our data are horrible. Anyone who dies of any respiratory illness in a hospital is counted as having COVID-19 without testing. People who die from some other cause, such as a stroke or pancreatic cancer, are counted among COVID-19 fatalities if they also test positive for COVID19, even if they had no symptoms. This practice inflates fatality rates, which are being announced by media outlets on a case-by-case basis, contributing to widespread panic. It comes at a time when fatality rates from respiratory illnesses have been increasing globally for years.

But instead of scientifically grounded evidence-based practices, in America we are creating a social crisis and an economic crisis, in addition to the ongoing health crisis and the climate crisis. We have created the Global Financial Crisis of 2020, causing harm everywhere.

The expansive paradigm of vitalism suggests that everyone deserves healthcare and an income. Universal healthcare and a universal basic income could be passed on an experimental basis right now. It would help the most individuals, improving public health and the economy. There are efforts to give people hazard pay. Truly, respect for human rights is essential to a public health response.

I say NO to healthcare based on fear, police power, coercion, and widespread collateral damage. I say NO to a single story that social distancing is the only thing we can do.

I say YES to healthcare and an economy based on equality, informed consent, free health testing, social connection, and the fundamental vitality of our own bodies.

Wash your hands with soap and water, yes. AND let’s have justice, equity, and compassion too. I prefer my healthcare without harm.

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