[SCIENCE SOLITAIRE] How long is life? A meter and 60 days
“As long as we stick together, we will get through this.”
“Let us hold on to each other through these challenges.”
“Touch a stranger’s hand to let them know they are not alone.”
“HHWW.” (Holding Hands While Walking)
The signals for connection such as “touch,” “hold,” “hugs,” “stick together,” and “kapit” have been dropped like poison because this virus rides on these kinds of contact, making its way into the mucus membranes of our mouth, nose, and eyes. Will we ever encounter each other in those ways again?
Psychologists remind us that “physical distancing” is the more appropriate term since we humans have found ingenious ways, through technology, to be present to each other even when we are physically apart. But this social closeness while physically distanced makes us necessarily struggle with a few things we never had.
“Physical distancing” means we have to unnaturally stay put within a few square meters of space for prolonged periods of time. It means that if we have to go out at all, we have to be masked and encounter other masked faces that do not awaken our brains the same way we would behold a complete, sunlit face. Many of us, including experts in science and business, think that even when the lockdown is lifted, we will all have an automatic “step back” motion before we get close to one another and that people will really be scared or wary of ever congregating again. Will we ever see restaurants, concerts, parks, and museums again?
This is why all our gratitude goes to communication platforms for all kinds of videocons that leave us relieved that we can still see each other, but also leave us so tired because we have to try harder to be “present” to someone on screens.
An inseparable dimension of “social,” of “connectedness,” is being able to feel someone. Through our skin, in whatever form or extent, through emotional scents that we emit, the slight gestures that could only be parsed by another human being upclose – all these are part of the unspoken exchange between individuals up close. Without them, the experience of the “other” is not complete.
The human body’s largest organ is the skin, with every square centimeter lodged with hundreds of receptors to sense contact. Those receptors will not disappear or be restructured when this current coronavirus disappears. Our brains, fundamentally wired to connect with one another, will still be the same brain, albeit marked by the experience of the pandemic. It will have triggers that signal you like “exclamation marks” to remind you of the danger of being physically close. Yet, our brains will still also have a larger network that could check the reasonableness of the germophopic tendencies we have cultivated in pandemic times, vis-à-vis the reality of the situation.
“Quarantine” comes from the Italian word “quaranta,” when they held ships for 40 days in a port during the wave of plague outbreaks in the 14th century. Before then, it was “trentino,” which stood for the 30-day quarantine of ships and sailors in the Adriatic Port of Ragusa. They shortened or prolonged that number depending on their observation of how many and how fast people got infected. No one really knows why “quarantine” was what stuck permanently in medical jargon regardless of the number of required days in isolation. Strangely enough, “40 days” was not a scientific number but a religious one. It was a popular number then because of the biblical stories like Noah’s Ark, so they may have thought it was a “safe” number to assign to the science of isolation for public health purposes.
On April 24, 2020 “quarantine” still held for us here in the Philippines, but by the time we reach the end of this extension, it will already be a “sessantine” (60). That would mean 60 days or about .0002 of the average life expectancy of a Filipino. In each of those days, we've deeply felt our yearning to connect and feel each other’s presence – body and soul – at our meal tables, in exchanges at work, at play, in friendship, and at social gatherings. Those yearnings will not vanish just because we have to reign them in, for now. Our human nature will not banish our sense of touch despite what we have experienced during the pandemic. We will find new ways to feel each other.
Until then, we measure our love and care for each other by at least a meter and 60 days. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.