As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads widely throughout America and the rest of the world, public health officials and government authorities are asking, then telling, then demanding that all of us keep our distance from each other. The US Centers for Disease Control define social distancing as “…remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible”.1
Where I live, all non-essential businesses have been ordered to be closed and people have been told to stay at home. The reason is to avoid spreading SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This is extremely important, in order to slow down the epidemic, lest our hospitals and health care workers become overwhelmed with more patients than the system can handle.
It’s not hard to imagine that the phrase social distancing was adopted because – from an infectious disease epidemiologist’s point of view – it conveyed the notion of keeping infected people away from non-infected people.
“Social distancing” is, unfortunately, not an apt turn of words.
Social distance, however, is a sociology term meaning the separation of social intimacy between two groups, primarily of racial difference.2 Distancing, a verb, means to increase the distance between two things, such as two people. One might logically conclude that social distancing is to act on social distance, decreasing one’s intimacy, one’s connectedness, with others (and especially of others of a different race).
But that is not what social distancing means. To slow down the epidemic of coronavirus, we all must increase the physical distance between ourselves. In other words, avoid getting physically close to each other, not touching each other, not touching the same objects without cleaning them between uses, and so forth. In particular, race is irrelevant. Coronavirus doesn’t care about race, it will kill with no regard for race. Failure to stay away from each other will kill a lot of people, of all races, who otherwise don’t have to die. The importance of physical distancing cannot be overemphasized.
But as we take these preventive measures, one thing everyone really must do is resist the tendency for allowing the physical distance between us to cause emotional isolation, decreasing your intimacy with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and perhaps even strangers. We must maintain our sense of community.
As this epidemic causes emotional distress for everyone, it is not helpful to become more emotionally isolated, no one need suffer through this epidemic, feeling alone and isolated. As we go through this crisis, and perhaps even more so during the economic consequences that will surely follow this epidemic, we need to feel more love for each other, not less.
The great news is that, today, we have many technological tools that allow us to maintain our human connections, even though we must physically stay apart. But one needn’t have a
smartphone, tablet or a computer to stay connected. A regular old phone is perfectly good for reaching out to your friends and family. It’s very comforting to just hear someone’s voice.
So take some great advice from the 1976 hit by the band Heat Wave, ALL YOU DO IS DIAL (and cheer yourself up by giving it a listen on YouTube!).
When you’re missing someone or feeling lonely, give your friend or family member an old-fashioned phone call. Once you do, you may still both be quarantined, but those feelings of isolation will melt right away.
RESOURCES – CDC website on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). HTTPS://WWW.CDC.GOV/CORONAVIRUS/2019-NCOV/PHP/RISK-ASSESSMENT.HTML (accessed March 24, 2020) – Park RE. The Concept of Social Distance As Applied to the Study of Racial Attitudes and Racial Relations. J Applied Sociology 8 (1924): 339-344. HTTPS://BROCKU.CA/MEADPROJECT/PARK/PARK_1924.HTML (accessed March 24, 2020) – Heat Wave. All You Do Is Dial, from Too Hot to Handle, CBS Records, 1976. HTTPS://WWW.YOUTUBE.COM/WATCH?V=LX_CZSR1UYK (accessed March 24, 2020)