Closing the Parks Is Ineffective Pandemic Theater - The Atlantic
Par Zeynep Tufekci
In the short run, closing parks may seem prudent, when our hospitals are overrun and we are trying so hard to curb the spread of COVID-19. But in the medium to long run, it will turn out to be a mistake that backfires at every level. While it’s imperative that people comply with social-distancing and other guidelines to fight this pandemic, shutting down all parks and trails is unsustainable, counterproductive, and even harmful.
To start with, the park crackdown has an authoritarian vibe. In closing Brockwell Park, for example, pictures showed two police officers approaching a lone sunbather, who was nowhere near anyone else—well, except the police, who probably had something better to do. Such heavy-handedness might even make things worse, as it may well shift the voluntary compliance we see today into resistance.
Finding sustainable policies is crucial, especially since this pandemic likely isn’t going away in a few weeks. It’s plausible that we will be social distancing, on and off, for another year. That means we need to consider how to maintain compliance with strict measures over that long of a time.
he outdoors, exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are all good for people’s immune systems and health, and not so great for viruses. There is a compelling link between exercise and a strong immune system. A lack of vitamin D, which our bodies synthesize when our skin is exposed to the sun, has long been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory diseases. The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure.
Read: How the 1918 pandemic frayed social bonds
Mental health is also a crucial part of the resilience we need to fight this pandemic. Keeping people’s spirits up in the long haul will be important, and exercise and the outdoors are among the strongest antidepressants and mental-health boosters we know of, often equaling or surpassing drugs and/or therapy in clinical trials. Stress has long been known to be a significant suppressor of immunity, and not being able to get some fresh air and enjoy a small change of scenery will surely add to people’s stress. We may well be facing a spike in suicides and violence as individuals and families face significant stress and isolation: The Air Force Academy initially imposed drastic isolation on its cadets due to the coronavirus, but had to reverse course after two tragic suicides. Domestic violence is another real concern: Not having a place to go, even for an hour, may greatly worsen conditions in some households.
The history of disaster response is full of examples of extraordinary goodwill and compliance among ordinary people that disintegrate after authorities come down with heavy-handed measures that treat the public as an enemy. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell details many such cases, such as the lives lost when the military was ordered into post-earthquake San Francisco in 1906 to control the dangerous and unruly “unlicked mob” that was primarily a figment of the authorities’ imagination. Unfortunately, the official response worsened the subsequent fire (which was more damaging than the earthquake itself) by keeping away volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand.” Some ordinary citizens were even shot by soldiers on the lookout for these alleged mobs of looters and dangerous behavior from citizens. Similarly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as a review of Solnit’s book summarized, “there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence.”
When the efforts to “flatten the curve” start working and the number of known infections starts going down, authorities will need to be taken seriously. Things will look better but be far, far from over. If completely kept indoors with no outlet for a long time, the public may be tempted to start fully ignoring the distancing rules at the first sign of lower infection rates, like an extreme dieter who binges at a lavish open buffet. Just like healthy diets, the best pandemic interventions are sustainable, logical, and scientifically justified. If pandemic theater gets mixed up with scientifically sound practices, we will not be able to persuade people to continue with the latter.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t limit park attendance at all, but there are better answers than poorly planned full closures.
Governments could make a special appeal to people who have yards to leave parks for those who do not. (Wealthier people tend to have their own yards or lots, which is another reason not to shut down parks and deny outdoor access to poorer people.)
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