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The Curse of Social Distancing

December 19, 2021 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The New York Times recently did a piece about a new website which has gained a huge following in the wake of the resurgence of the global pandemic: a popular online manual for suicide.

Many depressed and emotionally challenged victims of the new variants of Covid wrote in describing their inability to deal with their loneliness, their fears and despair, and pleading for instruction in the “easiest way to end it all.” The website "helps" by giving explicit directions about how to die.

The estimated number of people suffering from anxiety disorders as a result of Covid is 374 million. The figure for Americans is in the vicinity of one out of every three inhabitants.

Covid has many ways to kill. We aren’t paying attention if we persist in only considering the physical effects of the virus spreading its vicious destruction around the globe. There is a severe mental and emotional price being paid by its living victims. And part of the problem is due to our failure to identify it, as well as to publicize a major root cause of Covid’s power over the mental health of the world’s population.

To get some idea of the scope of this aspect of the consequences of the present pandemic, the prestigious Lancet Journal, based on data from 48 studies encompassing 204 countries, estimated the total number of people suffering from anxiety disorders as a result of Covid to be at least 374 million. The figure for Americans is in the vicinity of one out of every three inhabitants.

Depression has consequences in every part of our lives.

Here's how some victims describe it:

  • "Depression is being colorblind and constantly told how colorful the world is.” 
  • "I wanted to write down exactly what I felt but somehow the paper stayed empty and I could not have described it any better.”
  • “Most of all, I felt alone. I felt isolated. With no one to hug, with no one to share, I felt the void of human contact made life meaningless and unlivable.”

How remarkable that we stress social distancing as the key to resolving the severity of Covid without making clear that strengthening social relationships is at least as important in ensuring that the lives we preserve provide us with meaning, joy and purpose.

In Genesis, as God was completing the various components of creation, He inspected His handiwork each day and uttered the verdict ki tov – that it was good. But on the sixth day, as he saw Adam alone, with neither partner or friend, God said lo tov – it is not good, being that Adam remains by himself; I need to make for him a companion and partner.

A superficial reading of the text simply suggests that it was Adam’s solitude which earned the divine judgment of lo tov – it is not good. A more profound reading suggests that we understand it to mean that in spite of God’s proclaiming the work of every day as tov, good, it is only good when creation is shared, when God’s world is viewed by four eyes, not two, when Adam found his Eve, and when we, every one of us throughout human history, can share it with another.

Everything previously created in the six days which God praised as tov – good, isn't good until Adam, the lonely human creation, was able to find the ability to experience joy with someone else.

Social distancing is good advice for preventing contact that allows the transmission of disease and sickness. But the phrase ignores a powerful antidote to the emotional and mental stress that has made an online suicide guide popular. We need each other.

Yes, we need to emphasize the physical danger of viruses, but we also have to stress the emotional danger of loneliness.

Yes, we need to emphasize the physical danger of viruses, but we also have to stress the emotional danger of loneliness. We must prevent the spread of sickness but equally important is the need to find ways to foster friendships.

That’s why I don't like the phrase "social distancing." It would be better to emphasize “sickness distancing” and “social championing”.

The first is to conquer Covid.

The second is to overcome the sad specter of universal despair and depression in a world that forgets the supreme importance of our creation as social beings. Both are essential to making the world good again.




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