By now we know there are a lot of ways to flatten the curve, ranging from the extreme lockdowns we saw in China, to activating the highly effective Health Emergency Operation Center in Senegal, to contract tracing and testing in New Zealand. The question we face now is how to cope with this and future pandemics over the long term, while still maintaining a democratic society.
We need more than just autonomy and empathy. We need clear communication that comes from a single source.
The U.S. has experience doing just that, during another health crisis: the H.I.V. epidemic. Early efforts to stop H.I.V. in the U.S. were scattershot, but in the early 21st century we developed a comprehensive national strategy, with messages about the virus coming from a central source. H.I.V. is no longer a death sentence to the extent that it once was, and local health authorities offer clear guidelines on how to avoid spreading it — sometimes, they offer free safer sex supplies to people who are at risk. This type of pragmatic intervention is exactly what we need with the coronavirus; ideally it would be led by the C.D.C. or a coalition of health care agencies.
We could also stand to borrow another strategy from the H.I.V. epidemic: widespread acknowledgement that people have social and sexual needs that can’t be denied. In the 1980s and 90s, many leaders tried to push an abstinence-only solution to the AIDS crisis. But this created backlash. People don’t like rigid restrictions, and they kept having sex anyway. Once health care educators changed their strategy, promoting safer sex guidelines, with everything from bus stop P.S.A.s to clever videos, many Americans adopted the new practices willingly. It turns out that trusting Americans to have safer sex is more effective than shaming them into celibacy.
Perhaps what we need during the Covid-19 pandemic is a set of “safer socializing” guidelines that give us practical options for the times when we yearn to touch a friend’s arm for comfort — or to rub shoulders with strangers at a restaurant. The human need to socialize isn’t exactly like our urge to have sex, but it’s analogous. If we’re going to survive this pandemic, and the next one, we need to stop shaming one another for our natural desires. Instead, we need to work together to make sure everyone has the protection they need, and understands how and when to use it.
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Annalee Newitz (@annaleen), a science journalist and contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.”