Social Distancing vs. Physical Distancing

by Brad Davies on April 30, 2020

During the current COVID-19 crisis, much has been made of the need to stay away from people. Especially who are ‘high risk’ and the sick. The term commonly used in public health to describe this is “social distancing”. However, to stay healthy, this is about physical separation, not social segregation and it’s an important distinction in my opinion.

Current health guidance is remaining at least two metres from someone who is sick. Sneeze into a tissue, cough into your elbow and wash your hands as often as possible for 20 seconds with soap. This is about physical separation and physical health. All sensible.

However, some of the most vulnerable people in our society are already socially distanced. They may be elderly, disabled, or live alone. They may be mobility restricted, socially isolated – or simply can’t drive to the shops. Advocating “social distancing” could isolate already socially isolated people even further. I think this is dangerous.

We know that the best way to build inclusion (and reap its many benefits) is through social contact. People who know people that are different from them are less likely to be fearful and therefore, less subject to stereotype and bias. However, when “inter-group contact” is not possible, we need to double up on tech solutions to progress – and to avoid getting worse.

Tech has well and truly arrived to help us. People are forming social media groups on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook to support each other and share ideas for working from home more easily and effectively. Musicians are holding virtual concerts, where their fans can interact over chat like they would in an actual concert venue. DJ’s are performing sets. DJ’s from yesteryear (me) have even had a go. People are holding virtual quizzes. Virtual parties…. all to replace the fun of the pub quiz, where teammates can be on a video chat with each other, and answers can be sent directly to the quizmaster.

While these may seem like somewhat trivial events, they actually have a tremendous impact on people’s ability to interact with others outside of their home. Just imagine life without this tech?

At a time of crisis and fear, we need the opposite of social distancing. We need a sense that we are in this together, that people are not facing this alone. We need social inclusion, not distance. Call on your elderly neighbours, family or friends and offer help, and if you are able, consider what volunteering you can do for people who are most at risk.

Physical distancing is the right term. ‘Social distancing’ makes people distrusting and unhelpful. We need to physically separate, not socially separate.

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