Physical distancing - People queuing up near a supermarket in Colombo, maintaining one-metre gaps

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll)

‘Social distancing’ has become a household word thanks to the chillingly rapid spread of coronavirus, which has so far affected almost all countries, in the world, afflicted about 387,000 and  left around 17,000 dead. This term is being loosely used by journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, health workers and others to emphasise the need for people to avoid physical contact with one another to curtail the community transmission of the disease. It may make sense to the ordinary people, who are not interested in logical or lexical semantics, but linguists and sociologists must be frowning on confusing ‘social distancing’ with ‘physical distancing’.

There is no universally accepted definition of ‘social distancing’. Most sociological concepts cannot be defined unlike the scientific ones, but the general consensus among sociologists is that social distancing means the separation of groups of persons, based on social distinctions such as nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, age, etc. Some other social markers may also be added to this list, which is not exhaustive. This kind of social distancing has been divided into three categories—affective, normative and interactive. Some sociologists have written about cultural and habitual social distancing as well.

Briefly, affective social distance means the extent to which groups of persons feel empathy or sympathy towards one another. This is reflected in one’s unwillingness to live among those who don’t belong to one’s own group. This kind of distancing can lead to aggression, if not violence, as has been our experience in this country. Normative social distance is coterminous with ‘othering’ or making distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This may be based on gender, race, religion, and caste, as can be seen from the matrimonial columns in Sunday newspapers. Interactive social distance refers to the frequency and intensity of communication and/or interaction among different groups of people. Social distancing can also be cultural and habitual and is mostly based on wealth and class.

Social distancing and homophily

These two terms are as different as chalk and cheese. Homophily, derived from Greek, roughly means love for fellow humans while social distancing promotes divisions among people on the basis of some markers. Sri Lanka, which is trying to achieve ethno-religious reconciliation should reduce this kind of social distancing, which can tear any society asunder. The same goes for other countries, especially the affluent ones, which are papering over the cracks. In some Scandinavian states and Germany, immigrants live in fear of skinhead attacks, and the instances of discrimination against them or other such expressions of racial prejudice are not rare. The increasing incidence of violence white policemen unleash against the black youth, in the US, and the predicament of Muslims in India can also be considered cases in point.

It is an irony that Donald Trump, the President of the US, known for class differences, has gone on record as saying that the COVID-19 situation there is bad, but he is keen to scale back social distancing, the true meaning of which, he cannot obviously grasp. What the policies of the real estate mogul turned President, representing America’s superrich, are actually aimed at is to promote ‘social distancing’ and not to scale it down, as can be seen from his aversion to some progressive programmes launched by his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, such as Obamacare which was introduced to make healthcare available and affordable to most Americans.

Physical distancing or social distancing?

In times of crises and disasters, social distancing becomes the norm and there is no need for anyone to promote it. If a country’s economy contracts, leading to job losses, welfare cuts, etc. it is the minority groups that suffer most, for those who constitute the majority ensure that they have access to the available resources and opportunities at the expense of ‘others’. This is part of the process of social distancing that has been known to mankind from time immemorial.

Interestingly, the Guidance on Social Distancing for everyone in the UK, published by the UK government (and updated on 23 March 2020) says, ‘Social distancing measures are steps you can take to reduce social interaction between people. This will help reduce the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19).’ But, why should social interaction among people be discouraged if it does not involve physical contact? In fact, the aforesaid guidance refers to the physical aspects of human interaction: ‘Avoid gatherings with friends and family. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media’. What should be promoted instead is physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Let the British guidelines be reproduced below for the benefit of our readers:

  1. Avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). These symptoms include high temperature and/or new and continuous cough
  2. Avoid non-essential use of public transport when possible
  3. Work from home, where possible. Your employer should support you to do this. Please refer to employer guidance for more information
  4. Avoid large and small gatherings in public spaces, noting that pubs, restaurants, leisure centres and similar venues are currently shut as infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together.
  5. Avoid gatherings with friends and family. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media
  6. Use telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services

The British government is not alone in confusing physical distancing with social distancing, which has the potential to lead to social isolation. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has also erroneously defined social distancing as ‘remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” And congregate settings include “crowded public places where close contact with others may occur, such as shopping centers, movie theaters, stadia.”

Some medical specialists have, however, awakened to the negative connotations of the term, ‘social distancing’. Dr. Jeff, Kwong, who is a specialist epidemiologist attached to the Toronto University is one of them. He has gone on record as saying: “We started with the term ‘social distancing’ and I think some people didn’t quite understand what that meant, and they were worried that it might cause social isolation … So we felt that maybe we should really be using the term ‘physical distancing,’ because it’s really about being physically apart, and socially we need to stick together — but just in a virtual way.”

Thus, it may be seen that one should say no to ‘social distancing’ and yes to ‘physical distancing’ in these troubled times. Social interaction can happen in a virtual environment in this technologically driven world.


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