The jokes always start just after the crisis begins. Right now, Twitter is currently full of gallows humor about a global pandemic. Some of the jokes are funny, and many of them are not, but one common punch line is that self-quarantine will play out like a sitcom or a rom-com. This is the time to find out how strong your relationship to whomever you live with is, now that you’re going to be trapped in a small space together.
Not everyone lives with someone else, but, especially in cities where the population is densely packed and where it is economically burdensome to live alone, self-isolating often means increased proximity to other people—our kids, partners, or roommates. Bodies in close proximity—our families, chosen or biological—are our support systems, but proximity to other bodies is also how disease spreads, in particular COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A disease that confines us to our homes is a crisis that happens on the level of our most intimate relationships.
Families—meaning households in which two or more people live together—have historically been among the most significant hot spots of infectious-disease transmission, and that seems to be true in this current pandemic as well. “If a person you live with contracts COVID-19, you’re much more likely to get it from them than from anyone else,” Ruthie Birger, a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, told me. People are stuck inside with each other in order to limit their risk of infection, but at the same time this makes them among the greatest risks to those to whom they are closest. In a study from 2007, the rate of transmission of infectious diseases within households was shown to be so much greater than between individuals not living together that, Birger said, “the household becomes a larger transmission unit and kind of acts as its own person in society.”