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No Free Lunch

Social bonding, not distancing

I know I’m not the only one who feels uncomfortable with the phrase “social distancing,” which suddenly became part of our daily vocabulary since the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, even though it’s actually an unfortunate misnomer. “Physical distancing” is actually the better way to refer to the prescription to keep a distance of at least 1-2 meters (or six feet) from other persons in order to prevent spreading the virus through person-to-person contact. How “social distancing” became the phrase of choice somewhat puzzles me, but I guess people liked the more peculiar ring to it after someone first coined it.

Now, more than ever, I would argue that we need the exact opposite, that is, more social bridging and social bonding, if we are to get through this unprecedented crisis of global proportions with the least harm possible. Yes, we should distance ourselves physically from one another to keep healthy and safe, but we would also do well to reach out to one another in a stronger spirit of caring and sharing at this time that the needed solutions call for coordinated collective actions.

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I can see that many of us have done so. In the early stages of the enhanced community quarantine in March, many were quick to rally to the assistance of those aggrieved by the lockdown, and to ease the travails of our medical frontliners. At the University of the Philippines Los Baños, over a thousand students living in dormitories in and out of the campus were stranded by the lockdown, and worse, found themselves at a loss at how and where to get their meals, with all their usual dining places closed. With the call for help from university authorities, members of the Los Baños community came to the rescue, pitching in assistance in cash and in kind, with at least one group coming forward to actually prepare meals for the stranded students. Members of a parish organization I’m leading raised a significant amount of cash to respond to the students’ needs within hours after I issued the call.

In late March, I wrote of a young mother of three who singlehandedly embarked on an initiative to bring meals to frontline health workers in hospitals around Metro Manila, well before other similar initiatives for health workers emerged. She used social media to call on owners of restaurants, catering businesses, transport and delivery services; people who could help identify deserving hospitals or health centers; and potential contributors of funds or time to help in her campaign. Weeks later, her initiative had fed far greater numbers of health workers than she ever imagined when she began.

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These and countless other gestures of caring and sharing provoked by the COVID-19 crisis reinforce my long-held view that we as human beings possess an innate instinct for altruism, or genuine concern for the welfare of others. It surfaces best in times of great stress, and we Filipinos have time and again demonstrated this in crisis episodes arising from natural or man-made disasters and calamities that have peppered our history: the People Power uprising, the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, the Marawi conflict, Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” and now the pandemic.

It is often said that man is an inherently selfish creature, and indeed, much of mainstream economic theory is built on this premise. But textbook economics finds difficulty in explaining or predicting human economic behavior when altruism comes into play. That is why the economics profession is now undergoing a fundamental rethinking, both in the area of macroeconomic management and in explaining and prescribing individual economic behavior. Indeed, recent Nobel prizes have gone to economists who have broken out of the old mold.

The social bridging and bonding I speak of is not just for now, when health protocols require that we physically distance ourselves from one another, but more so for the “new normal” that we all face in the aftermath of the pandemic. The better new normal we all aspire for would be one wherein we all acknowledge that Gross National Happiness is not built on the accumulation of material wealth or possessions, but on fostering fulfilling relationships with our neighbors.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, No Free Lunch, social bonding, social distancing
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