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COMMENTARY: Social distancing isn’t an option, but our duty to each other

How to properly practise self-isolation
WATCH: As the new coronavirus continues to spread across Canada, public health officials are urging Canadians to practise diligent hygiene and social distancing.

Social distancing: it’s already the phrase of the year, and we’re only in March.

But thanks to COVID-19, the term is breaking the internet. Schools are closed, events are cancelled, and we’re all supposed to stand at least six feet away from each other.

Particular attention is focused on those most at risk, such as the immunocompromised and the elderly. This weekend, Quebec Premier François Legault advised all people over the age of 70 not to leave their house. They are also being told to avoid people who could infect them, particularly their grandchildren.

For some of us, it’s easier said than done.

READ MORE: What exactly is social distancing? Here’s what experts say

I live with two people at the opposite ends of the age spectrum: my 10-year-old daughter and my 82-year-old mother. Last summer, Mom sold her house and moved in with us. This arrangement was supposed to be mutually beneficial — less day-to-day responsibility for her, backup child care for me and the chance for grandmother and granddaughter to bond over their shared love of art and nature.

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But that was before the new coronavirus and COVID-19. I am now feeling terribly guilty because that arrangement is now the biggest threat to my mother’s well-being. And that threat is very real.

One in six people over the age of 80 who contracts COVID-19 dies. And that is for those who get treatment. The average age of a person who has died in Italy is 81. In Italy, where the outbreak has locked down the entire country, nurses and doctors are practising what is called “catastrophe medicine.” They are rationing ventilators, giving them to the people most likely to survive. And the elderly are not making the cut. They are being left to perish so that stronger patients can live.

How to practice social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak
How to practice social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak

Canada is not Italy. Yet. But the implication is clear. If my daughter or I contract COVID-19, we could kill my mother.

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So we’re all isolating. No close interaction with anyone. The only solution is to treat everyone as if they have the virus. This means the only way we can see people is through a video screen or outside at a safe distance. No activities like tag or tree climbing. Only safe-distance-apart things like walking, hiking or biking. And certainly, no shopping in places where there is even a semblance of a crowd.

Unfortunately, my daughter has outgrown her old bike. So I went online to order one, checked where it was in stock and called the store to arrange to get it at the pickup area. I figured I could load it in my car without interacting much with anyone.

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No such luck. Apparently, the store won’t sell it assembled unless you look it over first. Liability issues. I was told I would have to come in to the second floor of the store and sign a form. I felt panic rising at this perfectly ordinary request. I explained our situation. The staff were very understanding and made a plan for us to go in, sign, pay and leave as fast as possible.

When we got there, my daughter and I stood six feet away from the salesperson. I used my own pen. We observed the cash from the second floor; when the line was short, we went downstairs. A couple behind us started closing the gap, as you would in non-pandemic times; I held out my arm and explained that we had a senior in our home. Meanwhile, my daughter looked at people going up the escalator and whispered with alarm, “They’re holding the handrail.” I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

READ MORE: Coronavirus calls for self-isolation — here’s how to do it properly

Except this is not a television show. It’s real life. The new normal. Or what has to be normal, for us and thousands of other multi-generational families.

To all those people who haven’t changed their habits, who think people are making too much fuss, who are still going out and shaking hands and partying, who aren’t worried because they aren’t in a risk group, I have a message for you. And it’s one you need to hear now, before things get exponentially worse.

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We are all in this together. You may not live with your parents or grandparents, but every contact you make risks a chain of transmission that could ultimately contaminate them. The term “flattening the curve” is fast becoming a cliché, but it is essential. All the medical experts say the same thing: the more we can slow down the spread of the virus, the fewer cases will require treatment at one time and the less likely our hospitals will need to triage who lives and who dies.

Social Distancing practices to prevent COVID-19 spread
Social Distancing practices to prevent COVID-19 spread

One final thought: if you won’t do it for others, do it for yourself. You might be young and healthy, but people of all ages can require medical care. They get the flu. They get into accidents. They can have head injuries, slipped discs, drug overdoses. They can fall victim to appendicitis, twisted ankles or infected wounds.

And yes, some of them will also get very sick from COVID-19.

If our ERs become overwhelmed, like in Europe, if our doctors and nurses get sick with this virus and can’t work or, God forbid, die, you won’t get the care you need, either. It’s that simple.

So practise social distancing. Avoid crowds. Don’t leave your house except for necessities. Skype your friends. Go outside for air and exercise but don’t get close to other people.

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And tell your government, loudly, that it needs to support these choices. This isn’t the time for traditional “stimulus.” Governments shouldn’t build infrastructure or give people money to go shopping. They should give people money to do nothing. To stay home without fear of losing their job or the roof over their heads. To lay low until the curve is flattened. To keep as many people as possible alive.

This isn’t a vacation. It’s a war — a war we need to fight together. And the best way to do that is to stay apart.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.