Is it ‘Social Distancing’ or should it be ‘Physical Distancing‘?
Little did the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran know of the far reaching portent of his oft quoted statement, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness…”, even more relevant, now in these modern COVID 19 pandemic times. One could possibly conjecture a metaphorical inspiration for the philosopher, from the post Spanish Influenza world of the 1920s?
In a pandemic affected society, we commonly use the words isolation (for cases), quarantine (for those exposed), and social distancing (for those in the larger community) in the context of the prevention and control measures being instituted across the world. We know people take away different, and sometimes contrary, meanings from well-worn words. So when coining new terms, how can we prevent people from getting the meaning wrong?
We do not want people to consciously or subconsciously understand the term ‘social distancing’ to imply or mean emotionally pulling apart from each other. All we want is for a greater physical distance to be maintained between people. This might seem like an alien concept for most of the developing world, where ‘personal space’ is a figment of a fertile imagination mostly. To be socially distanced in its local nuances, to most people would mean ‘cutting off ties’ , breaking away from relationships, verily giving up on family, which the entire clan may be a part of. In an increasingly interconnected world (through the ubiquitous internet enabled smartphone) to a disconnected society, where neighbours do not know each other, where one has more virtual friends than real ones, where society is in the throes of the pangs of modernization, do we actually need to imply even if incorrectly, that humans need to be ‘socially distanced’ from each other?
So why not let us call it ‘physical distancing’ from today onwards? If you wonder who should push for the change? Well, I think you should, I should, we all should! We could try out this concept by bandying it about with friends and family, and it might influence how they view it and change what they do. And the ripples may spread out to change what everyone says and does. Be the change you want to see!
Physical distancing will perforce be the new ‘normal’, once this pandemic blows over, whenever. Cough etiquette will become a part of social norms. We might actually become more hygienic in our personal habits and start living cleaner public lives. Civic administrations might actually start delivering on keeping cities, towns and villages clean. A good scare does this to people. The issue that remains though, is sustaining the change.
The WHO has already been asking people to change from using ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’, but language is a funny thing. We in our millions create the definition of the word by its usage, an organisation cannot do this, however influential it may be. We need to be the change.
Be connected with the people and to the people, yet let there be visible gaps in your togetherness… (Preferably at least 6 feet of that gap!) And that is all the space one needs, horizontally, eventually…
In the initial days of the pandemic, it seemed apt for everyone to withdraw into their shells, pull up the moat bridges and draw up their defences, and be ‘socially distanced’. Now, we have learned that we truly do need each other, to stay balanced, stable and happy. We need people for us to be human and not just a digital image online. It is now being understood that the social connection is what is essential, while physical proximity can be given up!
We, the people, need to appreciate that ‘lock down’ does not mean ‘locked up’. It is not about breaking contact with your friends and family — but rather keeping at a safe physical distance from them, to ensure no further spread of the disease.
We need to keep our social connect alive, our sense of humanity intact and have a common sense of purpose binding us together to combat this, and all future threats to humanity that may arise. Ironically, the same technologies we often blame for tearing apart our social fabric might be our best chance now, of keeping it together.
So in the interest of humanity and your own sanity, try and use new ways to connect at a distance. Sing songs and make music together from different balconies if you have the talent. Use the humble phone, or email, or video call, social media or new conferencing tools to keep in touch with friends and family alike. Enjoy sharing quizzes and board games across digital screens, or maybe just share a meal and a drink through digital media. If you have never learned these skills, now is the time! What else are you going to do locked in at home? Be socially connected and yet physically distant. We recently had a med school Batch Get Together online. The Zedd Batch Zoom Party so to say. What is stopping you?
Be physically distanced, NOT socially distanced.
Reach out, but touch me not !
Let there be spaces in your togetherness.
This post was written in collaboration with my batchmateZ Aravind, Narinder, Ranjith and Rohit.