Why I’m committed to social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic

Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, my personal life involved a lot of socializing. I’d travel at least twice a month — sometimes for work, but usually for pleasure. I’d visit with family members who live around the country, and go out to eat with friends at least a couple of nights a week here in Houston.

I'm also a huge fan of the theater, and I spent a lot of time in our parks and other public spaces. Like many other people, I also enjoyed many “nonessential” services, such as haircuts and pedicures.

But since the coronavirus pandemic started, I've taken social distancing to heart.

How I’m putting social distancing into practice

Social distancing means, whenever possible, maintaining a six-foot distance from people who are not part of our household. When that's not possible, it means wearing a mask. And in places where crowding is unavoidable, that means removing ourselves from those situations, or choosing not to engage in certain activities to begin with.

For me, social distancing has meant I have not traveled outside of Houston since before the pandemic. I have not entered a restaurant. Visits with friends have taken place on the front porch only, while maintaining more than 6 feet of distance. I have not engaged in any non-essential activities, either, including salon visits and retail shopping.

I have used remote methods as much as possible for all essential activities, like curbside pickup for groceries and drive-through pickup for prescriptions. I have worked mostly from home, so I can help limit the traffic on MD Anderson’s campuses and keep our staff and patients safe.

And I have worn a mask any time I can’t maintain a six-foot distance from other people.

Social distancing is an act of compassion

Practicing social distancing is a profound way to show our care and concern for the most vulnerable among us. That matters to me as a physician because I took an oath to do no harm. It matters to me as a radiation oncologist because our cancer patients rely on us to keep them safe.

But social distancing also matters to me as a human being because wrapped up in that is my desire to make the world a better place for everyone, not just for our cancer patients. It’s an act of compassion toward all of Houston for our MD Anderson staff to practice safe behaviors at home and when we’re outside in our neighborhoods.

Social distancing is a necessary protection against COVID-19

Human beings have never encountered this particular coronavirus before. That means there is no herd immunity yet. And while we certainly hope that a vaccine will become widely available, we anticipate it will take a minimum of 12 months for that to happen.

We also don't have any widely effective treatments for this viral infection yet. So, for now, our only protection against COVID-19 is social distancing. This is the only way we can flatten the peak of cases, prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed, and reduce the number of people who will die from the coronavirus.

The hardest part of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic

For me, the hardest aspect of social distancing has been not visiting with my family and friends in Washington, D.C. My mother, sister and many other family members live there. I haven’t seen them in person for months. But that’s OK, because it has to be OK. We’ve all learned how to make video calls and stay connected by phone. And I know that once it’s safe, I'll see them all again.

It’s also been hard not to connect with my friends and loved ones here in Houston. We love to host parties, game nights, and sporting event group watches, and we do miss those. But as the pandemic has evolved, we’ve gotten creative. Now, I visit with people on my front porch. We all sit six feet apart and nobody enters my home, but we still get a chance to socialize.

Four months ago, I never would’ve thought of that as a valid way to connect with someone. But it turns out, I don’t actually need an event to organize the way I share time with others. Slowing down has allowed me to connect more deeply with the people I love.

What gives me hope for the future

What gives me the most hope during this time of uncertainty is knowing that we’ve saved thousands of lives through our social distancing practices. We’ve saved people we’ll never even meet: people who will live long enough to enjoy their grandchildren, people who will make art and music, and people who will go on to become scientists and pioneers in medicine — maybe even develop vaccines or treatments that can protect us from future pandemics. That thought fills me with a great sense of optimism.

I also think the planet has benefited from all of us slowing down. Many people have rediscovered the great outdoors in the past few months, by taking time to go outside and really experience and enjoy nature. Our carbon footprint has decreased significantly as a result. And in cities like Beijing and New Delhi, which often suffer from significant air pollution, people are getting to enjoy clear skies and cleaner air again, for the first time in years. What an incredible gift that is!

I hope that once there’s herd immunity and widespread vaccinations, we can take the best of what we’ve learned during this pandemic to slow down, care for one another, enjoy each other’s company, and limit the harm that we do to the Earth. That would be a beautiful thing.

Welela Tereffe, M.D., is MD Anderson’s Chief Medical Officer and a radiation oncologist.

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