During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been bombarded with terminology. Because we have had to adjust to a fresh set of rules and expectations, we are also required to familiarize ourselves with new words to describe these unusual circumstances. For example, just a couple of years ago, the terms “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” would be meaningless to most people, but now they are a ubiquitous part of everyday conversation and are constantly in the news.
Another term that has become widespread is “social distancing.” According to Lisa Maragakis of Johns Hopkins Medicine, “the practice of social distancing means staying home and away from others as much as possible to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.” It involves creating space between yourself and others to reduce transmission of the virus, including measures such as reducing the number of in-person events and keeping 6 feet of distance between people in public areas.
The history of distancing to protect public health dates back thousands of years. The Biblical book Leviticus describes isolating people with contagious skin diseases such as leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. The Roman Emperor Justinian sought to control the spread of diseases by quarantining minorities who he accused of being plague carriers, and medieval communities sometimes used quarantining strategies in an attempt to contain the Black Death.
As medical theories developed and became more evidence-based, the blame for the spread of diseases shifted from perceived moral failings or ideas such as miasmas (“bad air”) to more accurate concepts such as modern germ theory, popularized in the late 19th century with the help of medical research by figures such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Distancing began to be used with greater effectiveness as people came to better understand the root causes of these infectious illnesses. During the 1918-20 influenza pandemic, many governments restricted gatherings and attempted to reduce physical interaction in order to limit contact with the virus.
The term “social distancing” may partially have roots in Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics, a way of thinking about how humans use the space between themselves and other people. Hall, a cultural anthropologist, outlined the distances individuals create between their bodies and those with which they interact. He suggested that there are four general zones: intimate distance (half a meter or less), used for direct physical contact such as hugs; personal distance (one meter), used for close friends and family; social distance (two to three meters), for meeting strangers; and public distance (five meters or more), for giving presentations or performances. Although our current rules are based on data related to the spread of the virus and Hall’s notion of social distancing does not directly connect to medicine, the terminology he used resembles the phrasing that has become popular today.
However, the present use of this terminology has come under fire, as critics wonder whether creating physical space between people is necessarily the same as being socially disconnected. According to the CDC, social distancing “can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.” Studies have shown that loneliness and being socially isolated cause twice as much harm to a person’s health as obesity and are as risky for one’s health as alcohol abuse or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This is why it is essential that people maintain social connections during the pandemic, even as they follow the appropriate distancing measures to protect public health. Through safely distanced outdoor activities or virtual technologies that allow us to communicate across geographical divides, people realize that being physically separate does not mean that we cannot maintain crucial social ties. Whether it is attending an online event, video chatting with friends and family, or going for a walk in the forest with someone you love, there are many ways to foster a vibrant social life within your community. As long as you follow the rules in your area and take the proper steps to ensure the safety of yourself and the people around you, there are ways to decrease loneliness and create vital connections that will help you stay happy and healthy.
The advantage of referring to this as “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” is that we can emphasize the importance of staying socially active while maintaining at least the six-foot distance that authorities are suggesting. We can hold conversations and have fun without physically gathering in big groups or risking the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has embraced this change of language, agreeing that physical distances do not have to equal social disconnection. As WHO official Maria Van Kerkhove argues, “We’ve been saying ‘physical distancing’ because it’s important to remain physically separate but socially connected… there’s no lockdown on laughter. There’s no lockdown on talking to your family and finding ways to connect.” In other words, we can be apart but still be together in the ways that matter most.
Positive physical contact and close in-person interactions can release chemicals such as serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin that make us feel happier and less stressed. Unfortunately, being close to one another can spread the virus through tiny droplets created when we breathe, cough, sneeze, or talk. This is why it’s so important to wear masks and follow distancing rules, while finding alternative ways to get the positive effects of social interaction. The long history of using physical distancing to slow the spread of disease demonstrates that this has been a frequent tool in humanity’s arsenal against the transmission of illness, but thankfully we are living in an era where it is easier than ever to find ways to keep connecting regardless of the space between us. Staying socially active while physically distant can protect the health of you and the people you care about most, all while contributing to the global struggle against the pandemic.