Scientists and health care professionals often appeal to the concept of ‘herd,’ or ‘community immunity’ when discussing the value of vaccines. The greater the number of people in a community that have been vaccinated for a particular pathogen, the greater the protection afforded to the community’s most vulnerable members who, for various medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated. In the case of Covid-19, the ‘coronavirus’ now spreading around the globe, there is no vaccine as yet and so no community immunity.
Indeed, herding in our current circumstances increases the risk of infection, for the closer we are to each other, the easier it becomes for the virus to spread. For this reason, the measures we are being advised to take—washing of hands, forgoing handshakes, avoiding large gatherings and crowded spaces, to walk or bike to work or even telecommute—are all designed to protect us by increasing the distance of the physical space between us. This is good counsel and should be heeded for all our sakes.
But as we take steps to defend our bodies from possible infection, we also need to keep our hearts and minds open to the hearts and minds of our neighbors. The well-being of the various communities we call home depend on it. To belong to a community requires much more than jointly occupying some geographic space; it is to mutually dwell in a shared normative space, a space of meaning, value, and expectation that at once provides us with our individual identities and binds us together in reciprocal dependency. It is only by recognizing our normative interconnectedness with others that we can ever hope to understand who we are and where we belong.
In this time of necessary vigilance and understandable anxiety, we New Yorkers need to keep our humanity intact by never failing to recognize the humanity in others. We need to smile at each other, to be courteous, ever respectful, and to remember that others are as nervous and concerned as we are. While we need to be hygienically smart we also need to be ethically sensitive. And to the extent that we can, we should attempt to ease the burden of others who may be more vulnerable because of age or medical condition; we ought to call them, ask if they need something from the store or have any errands that need to be run. Most importantly, we ought to let them know that we are concerned for them and not only for ourselves. In the coming weeks as physical isolation becomes a temporary necessity for some we need to ensure that a feeling that one is all alone does not.
We all must do our part to help stop the spread of this virus. But as New Yorkers we can do even more: we can do what we can to spread care across our city instead.