Why health officials say ‘physical distancing’ is a better term than ‘social distancing’

By | March 22, 2020

TORONTO — Many health officials and news organizations have started to shift away from the term “social distancing” and are replacing it with “physical distancing” instead.

But what does the change mean, and why does wording matter?

It comes down to the connotations of the words themselves, health officials say. “Social distancing” doesn’t put the emphasis where it belongs.

DO: STAY PHYSICALLY APART

According to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization, speaking at a virtual press conference on Friday, the move to use “physical distancing” comes from a desire to highlight “keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another.”

Limiting your contact with others could prevent the virus from using you as a carrier to spread further.

This means remaining in your house except for essential excursions, such as grocery shopping. Going for a run or walking your dog has not been barred, but while outside your home you are expected to maintain a distance of two metres or so between you and any other individuals on the street, to the best of your ability.

Those who are feeling symptoms should avoid leaving their homes at all.

Van Kerkhove explained that in a crowded space, one infected person could spread the virus to multiple people at once.

“What physical distancing does is … it actually separates people out, so think of that same cluster of people but spread out over a much larger geographic area,” Van Kerkhove said.

“Just think of a drawing where you’re seeing a bunch of dots; either they’re very close together or they’re very spread apart. If those dots are spread apart and those dots represent people and you have infected people in those areas you remove the exposure, you remove the opportunity for that virus to pass between one person and another.”

Those who feel healthy may think it’s not as important for them to continue to stay inside their home or avoid others when outside for a rare excursion.

But that’s simply not the truth, health officials say.

“When disease has reached a certain level, especially in community transmission, and it’s no longer possible to identify all the cases or all of the contacts, then you move to separating everybody from everybody else,” said WHO’s Dr. Michael Ryan.

“You create physical distance between everybody because you don’t know exactly who might have the virus.”

There have been numerous recorded cases of the virus being transmitted by someone who was not displaying any symptoms — a lack of a wheeze does not mean you’re uninfected.

DON’T: BECOME SOCIALLY ISOLATED

The other benefit of the change, health officials say, is that it stops associating being “social” with something negative.

Van Kerkhove said that remaining physically distant from others is “absolutely essential,” but that “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,” she added.

“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.”

WHO’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed agreement, reminding the public to “look after your mental health.

“It’s normal to feel stressed, confused and scared during a crisis,” he said. “Talking to people you know and trust can help. Supporting other people in your community can help you as much as it does them.”

This can include regular phone calls to family, video calls with friends to remind yourself what another human face looks like, and even participating in organized online events, such as virtual dance parties on Zoom, a video conferencing platform. Numerous artists have started live-streaming impromptu concerts from their kitchens, and gym classes run on Instagram live are abundant, offering more opportunities to feel connected while staying inside.

WHY PHYSICALLY DISTANCING IS IMPORTANT

From the beginning, social distancing was meant to encourage the public to remain physically separated. An infographic on the federal government’s website explains that social distancing means avoiding crowded places, avoiding common greetings such as handshakes that involve physical contact, avoiding those at a higher risk from the disease, and keeping a distance “of at least 2 arms lengths … from others, as much as possible.”

However, not everyone has followed the advice. Many people — particularly young people who believe incorrectly that they are unlikely to contract the virus — have continued visiting their friends and family in person despite the mass closure of businesses, or gathering in groups for celebrations such as St. Patrick’s Day or spring break.

Young people are not safer, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“One of the things we’re learning is that although older people are the hardest hit, younger people are not spared,” he said. “Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant portion of patients requiring hospitalization.

“Today I have a message for young people; you’re not invincible. This virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you. Even if you don’t get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”

Videos of crowded beaches, tug-of war competitions and hundreds lining up to buy a physical copy of “Animal Crossing” at EB Games have caused concern for those who are taking the virus seriously.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu warned Canadians on Saturday that defying self-isolation guidelines could “put our civil liberties in jeopardy.”

“It makes governments have to look at more and more stringent measures to actually contain people in their own homes,” Hajdu said in a press conference. “Our freedoms around the measures that we’re taking right now depend on people taking them seriously.” 

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