Social vs Physical Distancing: Time to Change
Strategic Insights

Social vs Physical Distancing: Time to Change

Amit Shankardass - 04.17.2020

At the onset of this pandemic, I don’t think anybody realized the impact of the term “social distancing”. 

For good reason, it was suggested that the best way to beat this pandemic was through social distancing. Or, more precisely, the physical separation of individuals so that they are limited in the ability to transmit the virus. Several weeks into this, I now think that the term, not the concept, of social distancing is causing a challenge. To be more precise, a mental health challenge.

It isn’t really social distancing that we should be talking about but instead physical distancing. Humans by nature are social animals. We require a level of social interaction on a frequent basis for our well-being. So, it is rather ironic that at this time when we need the most amount of well-being, we use the term “social distancing”. As we have to stay at home during the current coronavirus outbreak, it shouldn’t be about disconnecting with family and friends but about maintaining a physical distance to ensure the disease doesn't spread.

I believe it is time to stop using the phrase “social distancing” and instead use “physical distancing”.

COVID-19 has been more than a business disruptor; it has also impacted us socially, physically, and mentally. As my colleague Miranda Collard recently said, “The way we work, live, interact with others, and generally conduct our lives has completely changed — overnight and with little warning.” As we all continue to manage the complexities and impact of COVID-19 on our personal and professional lives, there are legitimate concerns about feeling isolated and disconnected from loved ones and colleagues. The truth is that we’ll all likely feel this way at some point during this journey.  

Changing the words that describe how we should distance ourselves is a step in the right direction. The World Health Organization (WHO) has shifted to recommending “physical distance” rather than “social distance” to limit the spread of the disease. The idea is for people to remain connected socially. We are a social culture. We are made for being together. It’s who we are. And although we are physically separated, we have to engage with each other to take care of our mental health, and this will help to avoid feeling isolated.  

According to Stanford University professor of psychology Jamil Zaki, “We should think of this time as ‘physical distancing’ to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart. Social distancing is vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it also pushes against human beings’ fundamental need for connection with one another."

We’re all practicing physical distancing for the common good. Let’s remember to take care of our mental health and well-being, too. Dani Fallin, professor and chair of the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says, “there’s a lot of evidence showing that social isolation can increase symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, among others.” And we’re getting a double dose of consequences since we’re dealing with stresses related to the pandemic as well as the effects of social isolation. So, what do you think? Is it time to adopt physical distancing?

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