Even though opinion leaders and decision-makers and so many people are using the term “social distancing” we must ask what the concept actually means.
In their timely and eloquent blog post, Sanela and Matej are answering the question of the moment: why NOT to call our collective experience “social distancing”. And they offer a much better solution for how to talk about our reality during the COVID-19 crisis measures…

Social distancing or maybe something else?

Recently, intergovernmental institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the European Commission, as well as non-governmental organisations, and many individuals, especially in social media, have been using the phrase “social distancing” very frequently. Therefore, it has become not only a linguistic but also a substantive question whether or not this is really the appropriate term to address prevention and public health related aspects in relation to novel coronavirus or COVID-19 disease.

The moment we saw this phrase getting traction on the web, we began to wonder if “social distancing” is really what we currently want in our society. Particularly from the perspective of our work in the field of prevention, where social contacts play an important role. We think the phrase “social distancing” is not at all used properly. It would be much more appropriate to use the phrase “physical distancing”, since, after all, we still (despite staying at home and being physically isolated from the rest of the world) socialize via online (video or audio) platforms, social media, phones, balconies and so on.

Why do we think so?

The term “social distancing” means – in our understanding – and according to the definition of the Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology (2014) in particular something different than how it is applied in the context of COVID-19.

Social distancing is:

to what extent people feel closeness and intimacy, or (vice versa) the distance and differences between one another and other people belonging to different (other) social, ethnic, professional or religious groups”.

People can also change their feelings of (non-) belonging to one group or another over time, depending on circumstances, their own choices, or personal situation.

In different societies, people from different groups experience cohesion and solidarity in certain social situations (such as natural disasters, economic crisis, etc.), and distance and alienation from members of different groups in some other situations (e.g. migrant crisis, interethnic conflicts, wars, intolerance against marginal groups such as people who use drugs, homeless people, the elderly, the sick, etc.). The concept of “social distancing” was developed to improve the understanding of the processes of acceptance and alienation between groups of people belonging to different groups, but regularly coming into contact with each other.

It is clear from the above that the phrase “social distancing” is not used in the right way in the current crisis with the new coronavirus and should be replaced by the phrase “physical distancing”. Moreover, the social context must not be neglected, and it is clear that, at the same time as distancing physically from one another, we must strive strongly to preserve or strengthen social solidarity. Without solidarity, especially empathy for the most vulnerable population groups, we fail as a society and as individuals. Social solidarity is essential if we are to survive wars, natural disasters, epidemics or pandemics and other collective threats without major consequences. Solidarity motivates us to strive for the public health and well-being of all people, not just for our own safety and survival.

Every day, repeatedly, individually or collectively, we are asked whether we are socially solidaric and compassionate enough with one another (especially the most vulnerable) to prevent the worst-case scenarios of a coronavirus pandemic.

Time for social solidarity

Different countries are responding differently to thr crisis. Some are more effective, other less. The fact is that in the long run, those countries that are investing in social solidarity and the common good above everything else, e.g. avoiding/ overcoming political division, social fragmentation, scepticism about scientific facts and news sources, will be more successful. But of countries are taking wrong and counter-productive measures they are likely to further spread and foment distrust and confusion. In such situations it is logical that people will respond with extreme measures to protect themselves and their loved ones, and they will not be very interested in caring for the common good.

Social contacts (though only through social media, phones or balconies) give us hope that we are not alone and “isolated” from everything around us. They help us overcome mental distress and anxiety, stress and fear of the unknown, of an uncertain future. People send encouraging words through digital channels, more or less original jokes at the expense of the current crisis. We witness countless online and “balcony” concerts, recitals, theatre plays, movies, free online libraries and bookstores, and much more, that helps people in these difficult times to feel good and relaxed, and soothed.

Although we are physically distant from one another, in many ways we are becoming closer and more socially connected to one another. Physical distance does not mean emotional distance. Feelings of connectedness, solidarity and compassion will certainly help us to strengthen our mental health, to realize that we are not alone and left behind in this situation. Moreover, it is extremely important how the political system and the economy (e.g. employers) will react or are already responding – whether they are strengthening or undermining the sense of solidarity and compassion.

Particularly for vulnerable groups of the population, we must allow “social contacts” and “socializing” during these times. Let us help them order food and medicine. Let us activate teens and students to teach older people (via computers or smartphones) to develop their digital communication skills and provide them with groceries and other essentials. In particular, let us support those who are weak and are not able to respond to the emergency on their own. Call your nearest homeless shelter or local charity and ask them if they need anything. And why not starting right away? It is never too late, although we have been familiar with the new coronavirus for some time now…

Our planet will at least recover a little from constant pollution and the pursuit of profit and economic growth, and we will strengthen our “social contacts” and eventually overcome “physical distance” too.

All the best to you and good luck in the coming weeks and months to come! Stay healthy, safe and connected.