Social distancing or physical distancing? Which one for COVID-19?

Maintaining some physical distancing not social disstancing. Illustration Twitter

Maintaining some physical distancing not social distancing. Illustration Twitter

Maintaining some physical distancing not social distancing. Illustration Twitter

By Abankula

Since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus as a pandemic on 11 March, the mantra has been to tell us to maintain some “social distancing” to avoid being infected.

On 20 March, WHO dropped the term and adopted ‘physical distancing”.

“Technology, right now, has advanced so greatly that we can keep connected in many ways without actually physically being in the same room or physically being in the same space with people,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said at a press conference in Geneva.

“We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” she added.

WHO did not explain why it opted for the new term.

But coinciding with the change was a petition by the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, urging for the dropping of the term “social distancing” and replacing it with the more accurate “physical distancing.”

“To defeat COVID-19, we need physical distance and social solidarity. Social connection is critical to defeat COVID-19 and, as importantly, mitigate the downstream adverse consequences of infection control measures”, Jane J. Kim and Karestan C Koenen wrote.

“The concept of social distancing goes back to Biblical times, as a response to control the spread of leprosy: “All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.” (Leviticus 13:46, King James Version).

“The practice of minimising individual and community interactions to decrease the spread of infectious diseases was notably exercised in the early 1900s to combat the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Over time, the term “social distancing” was coined as a reference to several non-pharmaceutical interventions such as cancellations of mass gatherings and school closures that are now recommended by public health agencies in the event of a pandemic.

“Prior to the internet era, the mass adoption of smart phones, and social media, the term “social distancing” made sense.

“Social interaction was almost perfectly synonymous with physical interaction. Yes, we had the landline telephone, but our relationship-building was primarily achieved through face-to-face interactions with people.

“The digital age has brought a lot of virtual opportunities to build and sustain social networks. Relationships are often created, reinforced, rekindled, and sometimes terminated on hand-held devices or from a computer screen. Conversations are held via SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter among friends all over the country and world. From this shift in ways of interacting, we have effectively dissociated the social versus physical space.

The use of “social distancing” as a way to create physical space is a mistake and needs revision. In the context of a pandemic, we need to strengthen social connection as we shrink our usual physical interactions through school, office, and store closures. We fear that this misnomer may cause dissonance or misunderstanding, making people feel compelled to be isolated, when in fact there are opportunities now more than ever to connect socially without being physical”, the public health experts wrote.

However, in Nigeria and many countries, political and health authorities are still recommending social distancing as one of the precautionary measures against the invisible enemy.

Here is proof that our NCDC is stuck with the wrong term:

Which is more appropriate: Social distancing or Physical distancing ?

Sociologists argued that WHO goofed by preaching social distancing in the first place and that what it meant was physical distancing.

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Al-Jazeera in a report on the terminological abuse quoted two sociology professors, Jeremy Freese of Stanford University in the United States and Martin W Bauer of London School of Economics, who had expressed discomfort with the WHO popularised term.

“Social distancing makes it sound like people should stop communicating with one another, while instead we should be preserving as much community as we can even while we keep our physical distance from one another,” Freese said.

“We need to do physical distancing to protect everyone’s physical wellbeing, but mental wellbeing is obviously also important, and social isolation is not good for mental wellbeing,” he added.

Bauer welcomed WHO’s change in terminology, saying it was “long overdue”.

“It occurred to me from the beginning that this was an unfortunate choice of language to talk about ‘social distance’, when actually what was meant was ‘physical distance,'” he said.

“Physical distance is measured in metric metres or centimetres. It is the geographical distance from person A to person B while ‘social distance’ is a measure of distance across social boundaries,” he explained.

Bauer said it was important to differentiate between the two terms.

“It is good that WHO finally tried to correct an early error of mistaking physical distance for social distance,” he said.

“In these strange times of the virus, we want clear physical distance (minimum two metres), but at the same time, we want people to remain close to each other ‘socially’.”

Jeff Fox, blogging on 7 April waded into the persistent phrasal misuse, three weeks after WHO corrected itself .

He wrote: “Nearly every country is calling for social distancing, which is the term we often use for the most powerful tool we have to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus but I believe this is actually a misnomer.

“Social distancing suggests separating ourselves from other humans. I argue that is the worst thing we can do.

“We should be physically distancing from others, not social distancing.

“With effective and cost-efficient video and collaboration, we can be socially closer than ever before while helping prevent the spread of COVID-19′.

Merriam Webster dictionary said the term social distancing was first used as a malaprop in 2003, to express the meaning that WHO and national health authorities have given it.

Webster recognises the term as a medical one and defines it to actually mean ‘physical distancing.

Here is the definition: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance (such as six feet or more) from other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection : PHYSICAL DISTANCING”.

It further gave two examples to show the correct usage between social distancing and physical distancing:

“The main thing that we can all do, is what is called social distancing. I like to use the phrase ‘physical distancing.’ … Now you’re going to be spending much more time in your house, spending time away from people … to limit transmission of the COVID virus. Physical distancing takes away the idea we can still talk to loved ones …
— Adam Rosh

“The WHO added that they were now using the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” to describe the importance of maintaining space between people in order to avoid the spread of the virus.
— Manon Dark”.

So when next Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu tells you to maintain social distancing, what he means is that you maintain physical distancing.

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