Wed | Jun 3, 2020

Orville Taylor | Social distancing: an oxymoron

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2020 | 12:27 AM

‘Mind Jah lick you wid diseases!” Most Jamaicans who remember the dancehall duo Michigan and Smiley will latch on to their song of 1981, Diseases. In that recording, they listed a range of illnesses and suggested their correlation with certain immoral types of behaviour. Interestingly, Michigan noted that it was inspired not by the polio outbreak of that year, but by a visit to a strip club where the women left little to the imagination. Doubtless, the idea of wanton behaviour having major health consequences was well understood by young Michigan, whose goalkeeping prowess assured Tivoli Gardens’ legacy as a Manning Cup powerhouse in the 1970s. Keep their balls out of your net at all cost, and be careful what you do with your hands because one careless touch and it’s game over.

One love jamdown

However, their best song for me being a sociologist is their misunderstood 1980 hit, One love Jamdown. During the present period of this misnomer ‘social distancing’, the idea of being socially close might seem ill-placed, but there is never a time in our history when we need to say “social barriers bruck down, together inna one love jamdown!”

The poor youths were even threatened because some tribalists took deep offence to being referred to as ‘political clowns’, and an even more extreme set of ignoramuses thought that the expression social barriers meant socialist barriers. True, there is still a minority of extremists who are political clowns, but I won’t get into the devil in the details. Nonetheless, last week, in the House of Representatives, a spark of that nonsense caused Opposition Member of Parliament Peter Bunting to ‘rise’ and call for political consensus. Thankfully, we have it.

COVID-19’s hit list is full of celebrities, including leaders of government in all the major Western democracies, and the national response of Jamaica had been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO). And now, The Miami Herald has recognised that this little island nation is, as it has done historically, punching above its weight. This is an advantage that we must never lose because the coronavirus pandemic is beating the hell out of countries with more resources simply because they totally underestimated the scale and scope of this novel virus.

Anyway, the oxymoron, and I am not referring to any politician here, is that we are forced to keep physical distances for which we are not designed as a species. Human development is complex, and we in the behavioural sciences of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and social work understand that the brain does not develop physically without social interaction. We are programmed to mingle and to do so often. Touching is a big part of our growth, and that cannot be done by or to oneself.

In fact, for those of us who believe that the story of Creation is true, we should note that there was never part of man’s design to be alone despite him being given the two most versatile limbs in the animal kingdom. Indeed, Genesis 1: 26 begins, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea’…” Thus, God themselves are a multiplicity, not a single being. Therefore, man, created in their image, must by design be a social being. The dominion over fish and fowl is then followed by a clarification that “… in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”.

More interesting is that the serpent, whether literal or figurative, was not part of a union as far as the scripture reports. Many of us suspect that the fruit was not an apple or even a banana although the temptation is to believe that it might have been, being a low-hanging fruit, and it could have been a sexual reference. More intriguing is that reptiles are generally selfish creatures, and very few of them nurture their young, and I cannot think of any that live in colonies or packs. In fact, unlike mammals, reptiles need no socialisation, and more than 28 species of lizards, including the largest, the Komodo dragon, can reproduce without ever having sex.

It is reported that several amphibians and sharks also do so and, perhaps, at least one bird species. However, I am fascinated that two interestingly named American serpents, the cotton mouth and copperhead, are on the list of snakes that need no male sexual intercourse in order to breed.

Almost a form of punishment

Nonetheless, despite the treacherous behaviour of some of us, we are not snakes, and social isolation is almost a form of punishment. Myriad research in the behavioural sciences points to the range of social and psychological pathologies that are associated with physical isolation even in the context of high internet and cyberspace connectivity. Nothing compares to being touched by another human being, especially one who you love or who loves you.

And by the way, in a country where 80 per cent of us are church members and believe in God/Jesus, let the church leaders get back to Jesus’ basic message of loving neighbours as self, non-seeking of wealth, and avoiding the royal treatment of modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees.

After we survive this pandemic, many of us will have varying degrees of mental illness associated not just with the loss and suffering of our loved ones and ourselves, but more importantly, the return, to some degree, of normality might never occur for some sociopaths. This is a period when social workers and others of like mind and training are going to have more challenges and will be more relevant than in our history. Any response by Fovernment must bear that in mind because the isolation will create a wave of persons with less than the required level of empathy for normal social relations.

We have to keep the consensus because the consequences can be scarier than the pandemic itself given our already high violence rates.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to and