Blue and white clock from Beatrice Rasmussen, 2018.
challenge history pragmatic historian

Did Past Epidemics Cause Social Distancing in Scandinavians?

March 13, 2020

A mere month ago I wasn’t thinking about COVID-19, let alone thinking of blogging about it. Now, it’s pretty much all I can think of, along with mitigation efforts to #FlattenTheCurve in order to slow the spread and not overwhelm our healthcare system.

I’m writing this on Friday, March 13, 2020. It’s important to note the date because the situation is changing rapidly. We’ve got 14 people in the state who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, though we’ve not had enough tests to figure out how widespread it actually is at this time.

Governor Tim Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency this afternoon. During the press conference, which included Minnesota’s Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Attorney General Keith Ellison, I have never been so happy to hear competent government officials laying out a plan of action so calmly and clearly. Yay for a working state government!

I’m sure most of us have heard many times over the admonitions to wash our hands often and for a full 20 seconds … singing “Happy Birthday” twice through or some other song in order to get the timing right.

We’ve been practicing not touching our faces, or at the very least becoming more conscious of how often we touch our faces and running to wash our hands when we do it.

We’ve been coughing into our elbows or into a tissue and bowing or elbow-bumping our greetings instead of shaking hands.

We’ve taken the advice to stock up on groceries for a couple of weeks in case we have to be quarantined. Although some of us have been taking this advice to the extreme, but only for certain items. Hubby and I have found grocery store shelves cleared of toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, bleach, and bottled water. Rice is also a popular item.

One piece of advice that is absolutely critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing, which means staying away from people. That’s the whole point of a self-quarantine, which is what people are doing if they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s also what’s behind “flatten the curve,” the governor’s peacetime state of emergency, the closing of universities, businesses arranging for people to work from home, and the canceling of events. Hubby and I were really looking forward to attending Devin Townsend’s concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis next week, but in the interest of public health had decided to skip it. Within a day of our decision, we got word that Devin had postponed his tour for public health reasons. We’re hearing of other large event cancellations, too.

If we are out in public with others, we are to keep a 6-foot bubble around our person so as to reduce the chance of transmitting the disease.

March 15, 2020

In case you think blog posts spring fully-formed from my head, that date change indicates otherwise.

I spent yesterday at work with a sore throat and cough. Shame on me, I know, but we have so few staff (2.5 FTEs) and I had to put the word out that my museum will be closed for the next couple of weeks in order to flatten the curve on the spread of COVID-19.

(The lack of testing has me wondering if I came down with COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago when I developed a headache, cough and sore throat. The symptoms subsided pretty quickly for me, but not my husband, then came back a few days ago, something that has been found with COVID-19 in other countries. I’ll probably never know because of our country’s lackadaisical response to this pandemic. I certainly wouldn’t have been a candidate for testing weeks ago because I did not meet all the criteria for testing at that time.)

Normally, the museum is fairly quiet this time of year, but not yesterday. We had quite a few people in and they weren’t necessarily observing the 6-foot social distancing rule. (Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis suggests we call it physical distancing, not social distancing.) I kept trying to subtly increase the distance between myself and others when I found it shrinking.

This practice of social/physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic got me to thinking about my Danish and Swedish ancestors. Growing up in a household with a father whose ancestors were Scandinavian, we were not a huggy bunch. Social distancing was a normal part of life. With its high percentage of Scandinavian immigrants, Minnesota has a reputation for people who are not physically demonstrative.

This makes me wonder if at some time in the past, Scandinavians, who’d have to survive long winter months indoors, intuitively practiced physical distancing in order to stay healthy. Maybe there was a pandemic, like COVID-19, that shifted everyone’s behavior all at once. When it became a habit, it stuck with the larger culture and was passed down through generations, spawning families who don’t express their love through hugs.

Other cultures have practices that serve a public health function. The kosher preparation of foods is found in the Jewish tradition and has a health component. Sage, which has been burned in cleansing rituals by Native Americans, has been found to have antimicrobial properties.

Could these cultures have also adopted such practices suddenly during epidemics or did they develop over time? Likely, there’s a combination of factors at work.

It will be interesting to see if people around the world end up practicing physical distancing routinely once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

My daughter, who is a risk analyst and loves data, shared this great article from The Washington Post that shows 4 simulations related to how social distancing can flatten the curve on COVID-19. This is why I closed the museum, to slow the spread of the disease so we don’t suddenly overwhelm our healthcare system and the people who run it.

As of today, Minnesota has 35 people who have tested positive for COVID-19. (Check the MN Department of Health’s website for updates.) Let’s hope our collective action in shutting down public venues and work places will keep that number from growing too fast.

Observe your 6-foot bubble if you have to be out and be well.