From social distancing to ‘social permission’: Protests upend efforts to contain coronavirus

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Social distancing, the most pivotal and controversial planks of anti-coronavirus health policy, has kept millions around the world locked at home and away from work, businesses, schools, friends and even family.

Yet as public outrage boils over in the wake of the police-involved killing of George Floyd, mass demonstrations around the world are jeopardizing efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At a minimum, the protests are laying bare the contradictory messaging of public edicts to separate citizens from one another, while supporting a time-honored tradition of mass mobilization.

As regions make gradual moves to relax lockdowns, evidence suggests that moves to prevent large gatherings were already breaking down, as citizens infected by months of cabin fever defied health guidelines to create crowding in certain areas. In some cases, many aren’t even wear face coverings — stoking fears of “super-spreading” the contagion.

All of which is fanning a politically charged debate with a central question: Is social distancing dead?

“I think so,” Dan Carlin, founder and CEO of telemedicine platform WorldClinic, told Yahoo Finance in an email.

“I think many people are noticing the apparent contradiction between not being able to go to church or see their doctor while huge crowds gather in protests, many of them not completely peaceful,” he added.

Carlin, who spent two decades as an emergency-room doctor, cited a psychological concept known as “social permission” to describe the phenomenon of people conforming to behavior of those around them, especially if they’re flouting established rules.

“In its best application, a disorganized crowd can be made an effective protest for peace if the organizers model the behaviors they want the crowd to adopt,” he said.

“At its worst, “social permission’ can become quite dangerous and a disorganized crowd can become a destructive riot if even a handful of unruly or destructive people are allowed to destroy things without being challenged,” Carlin added.

The protests and the official response have been particularly acute in New York City, which until very recently was a global epicenter of the outbreak. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been mostly critical of the legions of people assembling in the streets, telling them they should assume they’ve been infected just as the state manages to bend its curve of casualties.

“We spent all this time closed down, locked down, masks, socially distanced. And then you turn on the TV and you see these mass gatherings that could potentially be infecting hundreds and hundreds of people after everything that we have done,” Cuomo said last week.

This article was originally posted on

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