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Up Front | May 2020

Physical Distancing

After talking about connecting for the past few decades, we have now entered the time of social distancing—which is actually the wrong term; the more accurate term is physical distancing. Because we can send up smoke signals and write letters, we are no longer dependent on physical proximity for social contacts. There is no directive that we isolate ourselves socially to combat the COVID-19 pandemic; it is only about physically distancing ourselves. In this age of smartphones, instant messaging, and video streaming, digital social contact has become almost too easy.

Take the classic night out together to the cinema, for example. There are virtual alternatives to this activity. I learned that there is a Netflix extension called Netflix Party for the Chrome browser. It allows you to stream and watch content with friends virtually. It’s free and easy to install, although you do of course need a Netflix subscription. That extension has been around for a long time, but the developers updated it in response to the pandemic to be able to handle a large influx of users and to be available outside the United States.

My girlfriend and I decided to install the extension and watch an episode of the series, “I Am Not Okay With This.” All we had to do was share a link and, before we knew it, we were both watching the first episode in sync while chatting with each other. A fairly simple experience, you would think, but it was not quite so.

We started chatting, and it was more verbal interaction than we would have had if we were in the same room. But my girlfriend quickly noticed that the chatting was a bit disrespectful to the series. Were we chatting or watching? Our intention was to be together, and the series was a kind of fun context within which to do something together. We were able to analyze the acting performance of Sophia Lillis by rewatching a particular scene three times.

Our chat died down after a while. But then my girlfriend commented that it felt as though we weren’t truly together. From too much presence to too little in less than 10 minutes—maybe it would help to see a streaming video of the other watcher in addition to the text chat, or perhaps that would be even more distracting. Anyway, it was less fun than going to the movies together, but much more fun than living in isolation.

For some, it may be more appropriate to bring friends together by playing a video game, but much more is possible. With video streaming, we can play many board games—from chess to Dungeons and Dragons. Recently, I played an apocalyptic pandemic scenario board game. It was a way for participants—who hailed from Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to vent their emotions about the real pandemic. At the same time, we brainstormed for things we could do in the real world to improve the isolation situation—such as using video streaming to connect people in never-before-seen ways.

Don’t forget, we’re in this together.

Erik L. Mertens, MD, FEBOphth
Physician CEO, Medipolis- Antwerp Private Clinic, Antwerp, Belgium
Chief Medical Editor