Daniel Hoffman: The coronavirus challenge – staying connected while keeping your distance

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The CIAs Directorate of Operations, where I served for many years, produces human intelligence, which involves gathering information clandestinely from sources. Imagine, for example, a CIA officer huddling with a source on a dark street in snowy Moscow or meeting a penetration of a terrorist group in the Middle East.

Source meetings involve the most intense personal interaction. The moment an individual agrees to become a CIA source, he is often facing some sort of a serious personal crisis. Working with the CIA appears to be the best decision to solve his problem. During clandestine meetings, CIA officers want to look their sources in the eye, while reassuring them about the risks they are taking by stealing secrets on our behalf and assessing the veracity of their reporting.

For these reasons we always sought to meet personally with sources. But sometimes the risk of conducting a meeting meant we needed another option. In these cases, we used covert communications or COVCOM, which allows CIA officers to maintain contact while practicing “physical” distancing from sources.

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When I served in overseas combat zones in the Middle East and South Asia, there were times when kinetic operations made it impossible to move safely in country. We did the next best thing and maintained contact with our sources via COVCOM.

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When I heard health professionals sensibly advising us how “social distancing” is the most effective means by which to limit the spread of the coronavirus I found myself remembering CIA COVCOM tradecraft, especially the three years I spent overseas in challenging war zone environments.

Schools and businesses are closed, and sporting events are canceled. People are strongly discouraged from getting within a few feet of one another, even outdoors.

We are in the incident-response phase, the so-called right of boom. A medical crisis is threatening citizens’ health and the healthcare system on which we will increasingly rely. And right now, the key to “flattening the curve” – that is extending the number of new cases over a longer time period – is keeping our physical distance from one another.

So to be more precise, we need to practice physical rather than social distancing.

Any of us could become infected with the virus, so all of us need to do our part to slow the virus’ transmission within our population by not becoming carriers. 

My wife, kids and I are not doing anything close to “social distancing.” We are in more regular contact with our family, friends, school teachers and colleagues by phone, Skype, Zoom and other social media connections than we arguably have ever been. Our family’s mental and physical health relies as much as anything on social contact. Our kids are enjoying no-contact bike riding and outdoor play with friends.

We assiduously avoid physical contact outside our home. We’ve been extra careful because my wife, who has been battling cancer for three years, is in a high-risk category. She sits on our front steps or takes walks and converses with neighbors from a distance.

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Any of us could become infected with the virus, so all of us need to do our part to slow the virus’ transmission within our population by not becoming carriers. Reducing the number of people who will be infected is important for the health of our population writ large and our health system, which is at risk of overheating.

With so much uncertainty causing distress among our population, quality time together among family and friends, albeit at a physical distance, is at a premium.

There is a bitter irony that millennials, who are arguably the most sophisticated and regular users of social media, are showing the least respect for medical professionals and politicians from both sides of the aisle calling for physical distancing from one another.

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Socially, we need to converge even if we’re keeping our physical distance. At CIA, we always prepared for getting back to personal meetings after relying for as short a time as possible on COVCOM.

At some point, we will get back to enjoying one another’s company on our own terms, but for now, physical distancing is the key for each of us in staying in the fight against the coronavirus.

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