For better or for worse, we seem to be nearing the time when large parts of our country will “open up.” I’ve read a lot about what this means for government and business but very little about what it means for us as social animals. How do we navigate “reopening” our social lives? I have a lot of questions. So, as seems to be the way these days, I tried to answer them myself and came up with what might be a good idea with what definitely is a very silly name: the Covid Coven.
Why Covid Covens?
- Whether or not it’s a good idea, people will begin to socialize in person again soon.
- Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, even within families, friend groups, and relationships and that is okay. This is and always will be true – no one is right, almost no one is wrong.
- Socializing in person will put each of us in close quarters with people who have a lower tolerance for risk than us and people who have a higher tolerance for risk.
- These imbalances will cause friction.
- We can guard against the worst of the social consequences and protect ourselves and our communities if we plan ahead and are deliberate about how we begin to see each other in person.
- To that end, I propose we create Covid Covens.
What is a Covid Coven?
- A Covid Coven is an explicit agreement among people that establishes an agreed upon standard for behavior during the periods between social isolation and a fully available and effective vaccine.
- A Covid Coven must have easily understood and specific guidelines for behavior. This could be called the Covid Coven Compact.
- There should be a protocol for what to do when a person’s exposure risk rises above what is generally accepted regardless of how or why it happened.
- Covens should also have procedures for movement in and out of the Coven to accommodate shifting decisions about risk, break ups, etc., and normal needs for social variety.
Does everyone in a Covid Coven need to have the same rules for behavior?
I would like to imagine that not everyone must agree to the exact same behavior, but everyone must accept the risk that comes with forming a Coven with each other. If I don’t wear a mask when I walk down the street and you do, you must be willing to accept the risk that comes from being in a Coven with me. We both need to inform the group if our personal policies change.
This is more important when considering people with essential jobs. If you work at a grocery store or hospital and I am able to work from home, our exposure risk is radically different. If I am willing to accept your risk, then we should be able to be in a Coven together. On the other hand, does this unacceptably raise everyone’s risk in our Coven and — if people are socializing throughout society — our community? Do we need to ask essential workers to create Covens of their own?
This honestly seems like the single hardest question and I have no idea what the right answer is. It feels totally messed up to separate essential workers from their nonessential worker friends, particularly because in many cases, this splits down race/class lines and the last thing we need is another factor that widens that divide. It also seems wildly irresponsible to break social isolation and immediately commingle everyone who has been able to socially isolate with everyone who has not been able to. Maybe the truth of this is that it will get worked out organically in the process of creating Covens. People who are able to socially isolate and who have lower tolerance for risk will be unwilling to accept the risk of people who have essential jobs and will form their own Covens.
What is the right number of people to have in a Covid Coven?
There are probably mathematicians or anthropologists or epidemiologists who should answer this question. Obviously, the risk goes up as a Coven gets bigger. Two people wearing masks when they take a walk and then hugging or kissing each other in the privacy of their home have a small chance of getting the virus. 200 people walking with masks and then hugging or kissing each other in the privacy of a medium size ballroom are much more likely to get the virus and with bigger consequences for local healthcare systems.
In addition to risk, you also have to consider the likelihood that smaller Covens will have an easier time organizing around similar choices.
Should we consider immunity from having recovered from Covid-19 in our Covens?
No. Whether a person has had Covid-19 and recovered should not play any role in designing a Covid Coven. The science on immunity from Covid-19 is far from settled and so far it suggests that:
- People who have recovered from Covid-19 may not all be immune from catching it again
- If there is some immunity conveyed by having had the virus, it may be of varying strength
- We don’t know how long the immunity against Covid-19 lasts – it could be weeks or months but it’s not likely to be forever
Beyond simply not understanding the medical aspects of immunity, there are very good historical and social reasons not to give special privileges to people who have survived. Creating special classes of people is generally a bad idea and has had really awful consequences for evidence, read “The Dangerous History of Immunoprivilege” by Professor Olivarius. Practically, rewarding people for having had the virus creates an incentive for people to either lie and risk contracting and spreading the virus or intentionally expose themselves risking their own health and others.
As someone who believes they’ve had Covid-19 and recovered, I would love to believe this means I’m free to visit all my friends and give them big hugs, but this is neither wise nor fair.
How do I choose between my family and my friends? Do I have to? Can I be in two Covens?
Yes and no. It seems clear that people cannot be in two Covens. Imagine if this were okay. A group of six friends creates a Coven. Each of them also spends time with their extended family. That’s six more Covens that are now inextricably exposed to the original Coven. Seven Covens, all of whose exposure is now intertwined. My extended family and your extended family has not discussed or agreed on acceptable behaviors.
That said, it’s important that people are able to spend time with family and friends outside of their Coven. This is where having a strong “airlock” protocol comes in. If you are planning to drive down to North Carolina to visit your sister, you should self-isolate for 10-14 days beforehand, even from your Coven, and then do the same when you return. Your trip should be public knowledge within your Coven and totally uncontroversial. Similarly, if you decide to make a more permanent shift from one Coven to another, you should follow the outgoing protocol from your first Coven and the incoming protocol for your new Coven.
5. What tools would we need to run a Covid Coven?
It seems to me, you’d need three things – a form that helps you gather information about behaviors and risk tolerance, a Covid Coven Compact, and a Covid Calendar for tracking movement in and out of the Coven as well as those “airlock” moments.
The form might have questions like “When you go for a walk in your neighborhood, do you wear a mask? Are you quarantining objects that enter your house?” These would help match people with varying behaviors and levels of risk tolerance to identify useful groupings.
All of this could be accomplished with any number of software options. If people are interested in helping, we could come up with some templates to start with.
After I wrote this, I saw this article from CNN
(https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/29/health/coronavirus-social-bubbles-intl/index.html) outlining what some European governments are calling “bubbles.” I like my name better 🙂