A day in the life of COVID-19: texting with people you normally see; Zoom for gatherings, FaceTime with your children; Google for virus information; new email groups.
Social media is revolutionizing the way we deal with a pandemic like coronavirus. It’s really quite remarkable, all the ways at our disposal to get information and keep our worried minds distracted.
Most important, these tools have changed the ways we are keeping in touch with one another in the face of social space and quarantines.
It’s worth considering exactly why social media is so valuable here. But it’s also worth looking at social media’s limitations — subtle but vital limits we feel at a deep, emotional level.
Putting it personally, when I now check in with my family, I feel reassured for a moment, but then my imagination kicks in.
Social media is a sugar high — you feel better, but then you’re pretty quickly back to your old self.
Social media is such an important tool in the COVID-19 crisis because it mitigates two things that can sicken or even kill.
One is intimacy. The other is isolation.
In the face of the pandemic, intimacy is a threat. There is evidence that the coronavirus spreads in clusters like families, nursing homes and religious communities. Jews as a whole, for instance, are at an enhanced risk because we are the most socially connected group in the U.S. with almost twice as many intimates as the average American.
I was a child during the terrible early 1950s polio epidemics. No one knew what caused polio or how to prevent it.
At that time, I lived in an environment of very thick, in-your-face intimacy, surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents upstairs, their friends, my friends, cousins and relatives. Almost all of them lived within a mile, close enough to come over and give me a hug, which many did whether I liked it or not.
That’s where I got my information about polio — dos and don’ts, like rest every afternoon, avoid chills, don’t walk barefoot on a cold floor, stay in your own neighborhoods, avoid “those kinds” of people. (Philip Roth’s final novel, “Nemesis,” about a polio epidemic in Newark, is a touching and accurate portrayal of what this was like.) Inaccurate info, for sure, but compelling, especially after my cousin got polio soon after his birthday party that all us cousins attended.
God, who would be next?
In the case of coronavirus, we have better information about the link between intimacy and the illness. As a result, intimacy has become a temptation to avoid, a gateway drug to getting the disease. The thicker your intimacy networks, the more disruptive social distancing is.
Social media, then, is an invaluable intimacy workaround.
The Downsides Of Isolation
Intimacy can make you sick, but so can isolation. It’s not hard to imagine an elderly person living lonely and alone dying of COVID-19 in her home because no one was watching out for her.
In fact, research about other disasters shows that isolated people are more likely to die. Neighborhoods with strong social infrastructures have lower death rates because people knew who they had to check on.
So, intimacy can harm you, but so can its opposite, isolation. Social media and other online tools have stepped in to help us maintain the best balance between the two.
Still, though social media reduces the angst and isolation of social distancing, it’s limited. It creates a key but stilted kind of intimacy surrogate. Call this vicarious intimacy.
And that’s different. Very, very different. Vicariousness involves imaginary thinking, and imagination is an animal hard to cage.
I don’t have to worry about my children or granddaughter getting the coronavirus from me. They live thousands of miles away, in Brooklyn and in Portland, Oregon.
Social media goes off. Life goes on.
And they don’t have to worry about relying on cockamamie information. Fauci has replaced family.
But this substitute is not at all the same as up close and personal intimacy where you can check things out in a less rehearsed, more natural and spontaneous way.
A FaceTime call is a brief performance, interactive, but still a performance. It’s much like a window separating a great-grandparent from her newborn great-grandchild. Peek, don’t touch, then gone.
With tools like FaceTime or Skype you observe things and ask about things briefly. Then you disconnect. Yet your concerns continue. Except now your imagination and dreams take over.
“How bad is it really? What’s with that worried look, the vague answer? Are we asking too little? Too much? I can only imagine.”
If intimacy is a gateway drug to the virus, then FaceTime is a gateway drug to wild imagination.
So thanks to social media, I feel better after talking to my children — but for just a little while.
Then I begin to imagine what it’s really like for my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter living in a coronavirus hot spot.
Or my Oregon daughter, a reference librarian, now spending her days working at home on email answering the public’s questions about the virus.
Social media goes off. Life goes on.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.