We are growing accustomed to the sight of people wearing masks in public.

We are growing accustomed to maintaining a distance between ourselves and others.

We are becoming wary, even fearful, of personal contact.

We are no longer expecting that we will be able to celebrate accomplishments or significant events in large gatherings.

We are growing accustomed to not assembling to grieve the loss of friends or loved ones.

We are accepting the need to interact with our patients through remote interfaces.

All this is necessary given our current circumstances. These measures deserve and require our support. We may even be coming to regard many of these changes as beneficial, efficient, a “new normal” in how we engage our professional and casual relationships.

But they are not desirable. They are not virtuous. They come with a price.

Nelson Mandela, who learned a thing or two about isolation during his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, is quoted as saying “Nothing is more dehumanizing than isolation from human companionship”. Although our restrictions may seem like trifling inconveniences in comparison to his experience, the parallel is valid.

Personal relationships require personal contact. An image on a screen can never convey the same meaning or depth of understanding. The concept of caring or concern for another person cannot fully be expressed or understood remotely. Learning how to encounter, assess and care for a person in need can only be accomplished through individual, personal contact.

Beyond these individual considerations, our social structure is built on the concept of “community”. Communities can be defined in purely geographic terms as a group of people inhabiting the same location. The deeper and more significant meaning relates to the commonality of values, attitudes and goals. Communities, in short, are made up of people who share certain understandings of how they wish to live and what they hope to accomplish collectively. Community requires its members to be accepting and concerned about each, which can only come through personal interaction.  

The education of its young people is, by any measure, a defining characteristic of a community.

The very word “education” has etymological roots that are both interesting and revealing.  It evidently derives from the Latin “educo”, roughly translated “I lead forth” or “I raise up”.  “Educatio” is “a breeding; a bringing up; a rearing”.  The definition that I prefer is simpler and more consistent with the origin and intent of the process; “an enlightening experience”

Facts and information can be learned in isolation. True education requires contact with teachers, mentors and, in the case of medical education, patients.

A community without social interaction and personal exchanges is not a community. A society without healthy and vibrant communities is not a society.

Getting back to Mandela, the remarkable thing is not that he survived 27 years of social isolation, but that he emerged from it all not embittered but with an even greater sense of purpose and understanding. The quote cited above continues as follows…“there I had time to just sit for hours and think.”

Let’s hope we emerge from our own prisons soon, a little more appreciative of what we are sacrificing, and a little more enlightened.