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'Physical distancing' is the new phrase to use, lest we all go mad

31 March 2020 - 16:09 By Tanya Farber
'Physical distancing' is the new 'social distancing'.
'Physical distancing' is the new 'social distancing'.
Image: 123RF/Natalia Sheinkin

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has asked that people around the world during this time of pandemic speak of “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” — because of the psychological importance of staying connected virtually.

It was not that long ago when the phrase “social distancing” was foreign to most people, but as Covid-19 has tightened its claws around the world, it’s almost all anyone’s speaking about.

The WHO began promoting the concept in the early stages of the virus, when the vast majority of the world was still going about their daily business — working, attending school, socialising, travelling and commuting.

In that sense, “social” and “physical” meant the same thing — people were together in person — and as the virus went from being a global health threat to an official pandemic, social distancing became an emergency.

However, as an increasing number of countries have gone into lockdown or at the very least have laid down restrictions on how people live their lives, the WHO has asked that we speak of physical rather than social distancing.

At a recent meeting, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said: “You may have heard us use the phrase 'physical distancing' instead of 'social distancing' ... one of the things to highlight is [the notion of] keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another.

“That's absolutely essential, but it doesn't mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.

“Technology right now has advanced so greatly that we can keep connected in many ways without actually physically being in the same room or physically being in the same space with people.

“We're changing to say 'physical distance' and that's on purpose, because we want people to still remain connected. So find ways to do that, find ways through the internet and through different social media to remain connected because your mental health going through this is just as important as your physical health.”

Martin Bauer, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, said the change in terminology was “long overdue” and should be welcomed across the globe.

“It occurred to me right from the beginning that this was an unfortunate choice of language, to talk about social distance when actually we meant physical distance,” he told Al Jazeera.

Bauer said physical distance implied a distance that one measures in the physical world, whereas social distance implied a distance in social boundaries.

The physical distance usually recommended by WHO and other experts is 2m. When it comes to the social world, on the other hand, they advise that you go forth and socialise for your sanity — but just make sure it's in the virtual world, not the real one.