On the Costs of Avoiding Swine Flu

On the Costs of Avoiding Swine Flu

Posted May 04, 2009

Swine occupies a place in people's minds that's hardly appetizing. On the cusp of a global pandemic of 2009H1N1 Flu (i.e., "swine flu"), people and governmental policies have begun separating people from the disease. Schools close, people stay home, and graduation ceremonies are cancelled. In the process, people have become separated from one of the most restorative medicines known to humankind---the power of social connection.

I found out about the swine flu with everyone else. Brian Williams, NPR, and my colleagues give me up-to-the-minutes updates on what people know and don't know about swine flu. Then, on Tuesday, I began to cough. I felt weak. My symptoms got worse and, at the behest of my wife, I finally went to the clinic Friday morning. I arrived to the clinic at 9:00 am. The phone was busily ringing, with people wanting to schedule appointments. I looked around and saw the anxiety in others' eyes. I asked myself, "Do I have swine flu?"

I don't. As I drove back to the office, I began to think about what I would have done if the answer had been in the affirmative. There would have been one thing I would have done before anything else: separate myself from others. I would not come into contact with anyone, lest I run the possibility of getting them sick. To be sure, this is the safest, cheapest, and fastest way to separate disease from non-disease. There's a cost that didn't come to mind, however: By separating myself from others, I would be robbed of the benefits of social connection.

Social connection has many benefits. Connected people behave better, feel better emotionally, and think better thoughts. Having strong social connection is also related to better physical health, including a stronger immune system. In one study, living with someone, compared to living alone, was related to a having a longer life. The implication is that people build themselves and others up through social connection. Therefore, separation from others weakens our defenses against mental and physical illness.

We must quarantine people from infectious diseases. No intelligent or practical person argues against that. The point is that we must consider how separating people from each other can have negative mental and physical consequences. Maintaining a connection with others is a must to ensure that people can brave the storm, especially when the storm is one in which the human body has never navigated.