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Social distancing is a privilege that is afforded to small percentage of globe

Ken Gibson


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Stocking up: Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries during a nationwide lockdown of 21 days to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Johannesburg in South Africa. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Stocking up: Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries during a nationwide lockdown of 21 days to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Johannesburg in South Africa. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

REUTERS

Stocking up: Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries during a nationwide lockdown of 21 days to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Johannesburg in South Africa. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

As the rapid spread of Covid-19 continues, health officials have asked us to self-isolate and practise social distancing. Some just won't.

The evidence suggests this is a crucial time for us to follow directions if we are to avoid a public health catastrophe.

Some people, however, will make matters worse. Covid-19 may be new to us now, but infectious diseases are not.

In my work, in the poorest regions of the world, I've seen that the key to halting any infectious disease is to break the chain of its infection.

Some people are struggling to adjust to this new self-discipline, so I wanted to offer an alternative perspective.

It is so easy for us to feel this disruption is impossible to overcome but we are a healthy society with extensive means to make it through this and to recover after.

But we need to be responsible in the choices we make today. These choices, quite literally, can have life and death consequences: for us or for others around us.

It makes sense to fully abide by the request to limit our contact and change our work and lifestyle habits for a little while.

It may be inconvenient, but it's important not to overlook something monumental: social distancing and self-isolation are privileges.

Social distancing and self-isolation, tragically, are not options for countless millions of people on the path of the virus as it travels across all continents in the days and months ahead. But, they are real, viable choices for us.

They are, actually, privileges afforded to a small percentage of humanity. We must not abuse those privileges.

My travels over the years have taken me to the poorest of the poorest places on earth. I have seen slums of millions of people forced to live on top of one another. There are places in the world where 10 people can live in a space smaller than a typical Irish kitchen. These tiny homes have no sanitation options whatsoever. There is no running water with which to wash hands.

Such a small percentage of the world lives the way that we do with all of our home comforts and ways to keep ourselves healthy and constantly entertained. In our fear and anxiety over this new deadly outbreak, we need to pause and be aware that our type of home is rare in this world.

It terrifies me when I think of the overcrowded conditions in slums of Africa and Asia and what this virus could do to masses of people incapable of self-isolation and of social distancing.

Already weakened by diseases of poverty, they have no way to escape the inevitable. Flimsy, thin walls, sometimes just draped cloth used as divisions between families, will allow the virus to spread through communities, bringing with it unstoppable suffering and death in places where there is no medical care.

Some people in our part of the world are unwilling to take the importance of social distancing and self-isolation seriously. Viruses cannot spread if they do not have access to a new host. It is that simple! So those who mingle, thinking that they will not get it, assist the virus by carrying it around and furthering its reach. That's a lifeline to the virus and a death sentence to the vulnerable. We have to work together to stay one step ahead. Steps we take in the next few weeks will affect us for years to come.

These are scary times for us but we will have financial help if we need it to get back on our feet as families and communities. We will have some options.

My mind races to the billions of people who live on daily wages. They must finish their work today before they can buy food for their family meal tonight. No work means no food. Buying what they need from what they earn that day is their only hope. They cannot stockpile. No matter how ill they may be, they cannot stay home from work or they and their families go hungry. They do not have the privileged choices that we enjoy.

Of course, every job lost here is a tragedy, a story of suffering. But for many this will be temporary. There is no welfare in some parts of the world.

Let us focus on our gratitude that we have so much to help us get through this together. We will experience this temporarily. We can afford to take the time to keep ourselves healthy and alive. We have the space to distance and isolate ourselves from our neighbours. We have these privileges. They are life-saving opportunities.

So, however inconvenient we find social distancing or self-isolation, just do it. It's a privilege to be able to.

Ken Gibson is the CEO of The Leprosy Mission Ireland

Irish Independent