Sun | Jul 5, 2020

Michael Barnett | The misuse of the term ‘social distancing’

Published:Thursday | May 28, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Social distancing being practised in the customers’ waiting area of a company.
Michael Bennett

The current coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly exacted an unmeasurable toll on the medical health and the economies of nations globally. However, what I would like to focus on is the social impact that it has had on citizens the world over.

At a fundamental level, a key thing that I think needs to be tackled is the misuse of the term ?social distancing? in the midst of this pandemic. Wearing the hat of a sociologist in this instance, let me say that we should first recognise that human beings are implicitly social beings, and while we recognise the importance of maintaining a physical distance from one another to curtail the spread of the virus, we should not be encouraging people to be socially distant from one another, which is what we are implying when we use the term 'social distancing', whether we realise it or not.

To be physically distant does not necessitate being socially distant from one another, and if anything, we should be guarding against this. In fact, we should be striving to maintain social connectivity while being physically distant. This might be more difficult in these unusual times, but it is something that we should all strive to do, via the Internet, via the various telecommunication devices at our disposal, and via the various media platforms to which we may have access. This is more important now than before, because diminished social connectivity as a result of physical isolation will have grave consequences for us at all levels, as communities, societies, nations and as a global community. The social and psychological well-being of individuals has to be something that we all take seriously as a global family. And in this light, banding around the term 'social distancing' should not be done as casually as it is at present.

?Social distancing? suggests being socially distant, or in plain terms being antisocial, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. This is the message that we are projecting, at a subliminal level (if not overtly), whenever we utter the term publicly.


I don?t know who construed this term in the first place, but I am almost certain that it was not a sociologist. Yes, the term has now garnered worldwide use by people from all walks of life, from politicians to intellectuals, to journalists, to lay persons, but does that make it appropriate? In my mind, no; it is not.

As I mentioned before, while being physically distant is a necessary evil because of the perilous nature of the novel coronavirus, we, at the same time, should not be striving to be socially distant, socially disconnected or socially isolated from one another if we can help it at all. If anything, we should be compensating for physical distancing by making more efforts to facilitate and maintain social connectivity through ingenious non-physical means. This is not just important from the perspective of social and psychological well-being (i.e., mental health), but also from the perspective of maintaining our very humanity.

Let the new mantra be 'physical distancing', not ?social distancing?.

Michael Barnett is a senior lecturer in sociology at The University of the West Indies.