Why are we still not keeping an appropriate distance?

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This morning, I witnessed a complete lack of social distancing in disbelief and horror. Not an example that the media will capture but exactly the type of situation where Covid-19 could potentially flourish. What are we not getting about managing this important life saving precaution??

I pushed the button on the elevators (elbow) and waited for an empty cart so I could ride to my office where I am able to provide online/telephone therapy to vulnerable people. I watched in disbelief as elevator doors continued to open, revealing that social (I prefer physical ) distancing was clearly not even a consideration amongst the employees of this facility! To provide the reader a visual, there are two elevators available. Each has a floor space of about 4 x 5 feet. To follow distancing appropriately – means only one person could safely ride at a time. As I waited for my solo ride, the doors on each side of me began to open. My disbelief began to grow. One cart held four people – appearing to be co-workers riding together. Another, held two workers, another four, and so on. After nine door openings, there was a cart that held only one person. I said good morning and said I’d catch the next one to maintain distance. She looked so relieved and thanked me for being considerate. Considerate? While I appreciated the kind remarks, but as the doors closed I thought about how social/physical distancing is not about politeness. If Canadians are really so “nice” and so “polite” why are we not acting this way. It’s science not social courtesy.

The Science behind social distancing

What the _______is going on in Calgary, Alberta, Canada?

I have heard others say in response that “people are so stupid”, “those millennials”, “it is a conspiracy” “people are overreacting”. I do not believe people are stupid, nor were the vast majority in today’s scenario millennials, and I simply don’t buy global conspiracy. Social distancing is certainly not an overreaction as evidenced in the above video. What I do believe is that people act in ways that are self-preserving (toilet paper and food hoarding) and this creates a ‘follow the crowd’ mentality, and most people participate or at the very least act as bystanders ‘watching from the sidelines’. That is, unless you have the mental fortitude to act intentionally (stay at home, safe distancing, stop hoarding) you will be part of the problem and not part of the solution that could save YOUR family, and loved ones. Sadly for some people – unless there is an external locus of control involved (law, fines) they default to zero personal responsibility and watch others continue without acting. Diffusion of responsibility and bystander effect. Both of these sociopsychological phenomenons are completely relevant in the Covid 19 pandemic and completely relevant to all of us – as individuals who live in this city, province, country, and globe. Take for example Kitty Genovese and World War II.

Kitty’s story demonstrates the sociological and psychological phenomenons of diffusion of responsibility perfectly and bystander effect. “In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside the apartment building across the street from where she lived, in an apartment above a row of shops… Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming that as many as 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid”. This concept holds that people are less likely to take personal responsibility for necessary action or remain inactive when they assume others will ‘do what is right’.

The diffusion of responsibility for alleged war crimes during WWII was famously used as a legal defense by many of the Nazis under trial at Nuremberg. Because of the displacement of responsibility, they did not assume personal responsibility to help or at least not harm victims, but they felt like they were just following orders. They blamed those telling them to carry out the orders rather than blaming themselves for the atrocities they had committed.

So what can I do myself to practice assuming responsibility and not engaging in bystander effect? How to be part of the solution and not the problem.

If you – see or hear things that go against what you know to be harmful or potentially put others or yourself at risk – please I implore you to not be a bystander and assume others will take the responsibility. It is scary as traumatized people (or people who operate from primarily an external locus of control) can be verbally and sometimes physically aggressive. I had this happen recently when I was in a pharmacy (supposed to be one customer at a time). A man walked right up to me so he could see the counter display – and when I asked him to step back he became belligerent and verbally shaming me for being “old” and “paranoid” until staff asked him to leave. The damage was done in terms of breaching the appropriate physical distance but I’ll be damned if I will be one of the 38 people who see and hear and do not act in a responsible way during this pandemic. It is my personality responsibility to act in my circle of control. It is not that we are polite Canadians – we lack assertiveness and disguise that as “niceness”. We put responsibility on our governments, our leaders, we blame others, and watch as this virus continues to spread. It is our responsibility. Yours and mine. Keep your physical distance and be part of the solution and not the problem. It may not be WWII – but we are undeniably involved in a metaphorical war.

In the wise words of Lynn Ungar,

Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (Surely, that has come clear). Do not reach out your hands – instead reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.

Be well.


Beth Forbes, Psychologist


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