Social distancing isn’t the right language for what Covid-19 asks of us

Social distancing in LA.
Social distancing in LA.
Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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It is a remarkable thing to consider that only a few months ago, most of humanity did not know what social distancing was. The term’s popularity, and the need for it, emerged as Covid-19 did.

But as it has become both part of our lexicon and a defining feature of our lives, a growing group of people are calling for the term—though not the actions—to be changed. We should be physical distancing, they say, not social distancing.

“Language matters right now,” says Cormac Russell, a faculty member of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University. It always does, but in a crisis where social isolation is a serious concern, accurately describing what we are asking of people is crucial. “Stay at home and when out, remain physically apart,” is an essential message, he says, “one that we must all take onboard.” But to stay well during this time, people will need to actively seek ways to stay social. That’s a different message than social distancing.

Social distancing comes from epidemiology and it means that people should stay far enough away from each other to limit the spread of the virus from one person to another. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes social distancing as staying away from mass gatherings and keeping a distance of six feet (or two meters) away from other people. It is critically important public health guidance and should be followed.

But social distancing implies not socializing; physical distance means not being physically close. Proponents of the term “physical distancing” fully support staying home in this time in general, and cocooning—i.e. staying isolated even from those in your home, if possible—when potentially infected or exposed. But since we are in this for the long term, they’d like more intentional language to make it clearer what we need to do: stay apart, but stay connected.

We need to work together to stay apart, to be in constant contact to understand the fast-changing dynamics of civic life, but also to support each other in illness, and as we die, something so many people have gone through alone in Italy and Spain. It was originally for the more vulnerable that we were asked to stay inside; now it is for the fate of our health systems. These are both collective actions.

“This pandemic response effort requires full community investment,” Northwestern’s Russell says. “To achieve that, we need active solidarity, not passive compliance.”

Those with knowledge of the power of language to sway behavior are advising governments, and choosing their language carefully.

On March 20, the World Health Organization said it was officially changing its language. “We’re changing to say ‘physical distance,’ and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove announced (pdf) at the organization’s daily press conference. Singapore calls it “safe distancing.” Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki suggests physical distancing or “distant socializing.” “’Social distancing’ was the wrong term to begin with,” he said in this  Q&A on Stanford’s website.  

Humans are social beings

In 2010, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University published research showing that people with weaker social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of dying early than those with stronger ones. Being disconnected, she showed, posed danger comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity.

“Humans need others to survive,” she told me in 2018. “Regardless of one’s sex, country or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival.”

This is precisely why this pandemic is so challenging. We exist in a moment that calls for a different social contract, one that connects us more to one another. And yet Covid-19 tells us to socially distance ourselves, to self-quarantine, to self-isolate.

It is a directive that goes against our nature as my colleague Annalisa Merelli writes in Quartz, the idea of distancing is an unimaginable luxury in most parts of the world:

People who live in the low- or middle-income neighborhoods of Africa or Asia’s large cities, or the slums of Latin America, depend on the informal economy. They are often sharing overcrowded quarters, and don’t have a realistic option to stand two meters (six feet) apart. Their strained, already precarious healthcare resources won’t stand a chance under the weight of a pandemic that’s already crushing the world’s strongest health systems.

In the Guardian, Francine Prose suggests we need to look no further than the subway in the morning to see evidence of a gaping class divide:

We know the virus isn’t our fault, but the fact that there are human beings, packed in during a plague, in a metal tube speeding underground, the fact that some warehouses, trucking firms and big box stores don’t protect their workers, well, that sort of is our fault. We could have done something about it before we had to leave our offices and focus on survival. Before things got so complicated.

To many, it is abundantly clear that the 50-year bonanza of self-maximization, actualization, and optimization was a taut rope waiting to break. The neoliberal project of letting the markets solve everything, and hoping humans could scrape by, was stretched more and more by evidence of pending ecological collapse, rising inequality, and a tide of migration that challenged even the most welcoming of countries. It really was all so fragile. And then with Covid-19, it fell apart.

And yet it also became abundantly clear, with this virus, that we have the capacity to change mightily on a dime. We stopped traveling, stopped socializing, moved work and school home, and met our neighbors. “Covid demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important,” writes Charles Eisenstein. “What else might we achieve, in coherency?”

Working together, staying apart

If a new concept of capitalism is hammered out, it will be a more collective one, one that honors our need to be in something together and not have life be an endless, zero-sum game. In pockets, that’s happening. In the US, socialized medicine was taboo only years ago. Today it is conversation taking place among mainstream presidential candidates. Towns like Frome in England have spent more than half a decade rebuilding communities and health care, tapping into people’s desire to help and be helped, and reaping the benefits of a healthier, more connected population. When the UK health secretary asked for volunteers to help fight Covid-19, 400,000 Brits immediately signed up.  These efforts are all predicated on working together, not being apart.

So why are we calling the thing we need to do most the thing that goes against our most essential human nature?

Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at Boston University, argues we probably ought to change the language of social-distancing—but not yet. “We are absolutely in the throes of this right now and the last thing we can do is begin confusing people,” he says.

At the moment, Perls explains, social distancing is the only tool we have to fight the virus. A vaccine is months away, treatment is being tested but is not yet verified. Practicing social distancing, as it’s already been recommended and described in many countries, is imperative to “flatten the curve,” another popular phrase in the lexicon now. (A flatter curve means we can spread out the cases so as not to completely overwhelm the healthcare system at any one time, leading to unnecessary deaths and fraught moral choices about who gets a ventilator and who does not.)

Perls agrees that ultimately, language matters. Shelter-in-place, a phrase used only temporarily in some places, was quickly abandoned, he points out, due to the fact that it was associated with active-shooter scenarios. 

Picking the right language, as we proceed from the most acute phase of the crisis to whatever the new normal is, will matter. “For the long haul, we need to come up with a formula that works and uses the right terms—and social distancing may not be the right phrase to instill a group effort, the idea that everyone is working together, the nationalistic effort which will be needed to defeat this virus,” says Perls.

Millions of little boats

Paul Nurse is chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research institute in London. Speaking recently to the BBC’s Radio4 program about repurposing the lab to carry out Covid-19 tests, and rolling out ways to make sure other research institutes could join, he invoked a lesson of World War II: “A metaphor here is Dunkirk—we are a lot of little boats, and the little boats can be effective.”

He continued, “The government has put some big boats, destroyers in place. That’s a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well.”

It was an apt analogy, and it demonstrated just how powerful language can be to give people an image of what is being asked of us in this moment—to work together, but stay apart.