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Social scientists in general and sociologists in particular have been debating the social dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and possible social organisation of a post-pandemic society. There is no clarity about this nevertheless, the post-pandemic society is going to alter the socio-economic dynamics drastically. Times like these open the windows to understand social processes at work during public emergencies. It is these times that bring out the worst and the best in our societies in every aspect.

Vocabulary and choice of words have significant influence on people’s perception, behavior and actions in general and in a situation of public crisis especially. Adapting or coining terms for communicating with the masses during such crisis requires utmost caution. It is important to bear in mind what some of these terms would mean in more ‘normal’ times and what could be their impact in extreme situations like we face today. This awareness comes from the knowledge domains produced by those studying societies and social systems. This write up makes an attempt to bring out sociological aspects of the term ‘social distancing’ which has become a most used one in the pandemic vocabulary.

Social Distancing

The term social distancing has become popular and is used frequently in official and non-official addresses, briefings and conversations. It became prominent in precautionary measures vocabulary and highly recommended for breaking the infection chain or transmission of the virus in the community. Statements and advisories released by various departments and ministries started using the term ‘social distancing’ as a non-pharmaceutical infection prevention and control intervention. In other words, the term became the major mantra and weapon to fight the pandemic world over and India in no exception to this.

A sociological perspective could be employed to understand the impact and meaning of this term in a specific social context in which it has to be used. The term was coined by the international health agencies including the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was used unchecked, initially, in Western and European countries to stop the community transmission of the virus.

The Indian Context

It is a well-known fact that Indian society is marked with notorious forms of social divisions and hierarchies which usually carry various active and passive forms of discrimination including practices of untouchability and exclusion. Certain practices demark norms of social distancing. The evidence of discrimination in access to health services and rehabilitation assistance against socially excluded groups is well documented. One of the important markers of these discriminatory practices is the restrictions imposed on the social intercourse between social groups based on the ideas of purity and pollution depending on the ritual hierarchy.

In the Indian social context, the term ‘social distancing’ would have a different meaning altogether and would rather create difficult situations in the midst of a public health crisis.

Recent incidents of discrimination, hostility, violence and indifference reported in the media point towards what lies beneath the surface. As reported in media, in Kushinagar district of Uttar Pradesh, some quarantined people refused to accept food cooked by a Dalit woman who is also the village head and was preparing food for the quarantined on request from the local administration (Srivastava 2020). A similar incident was reported from Basti district of the state. These are few examples of the intensity of the deeply rooted social prejudices in society which refuse to die down or step aside in times of crisis like this which requires people coming together to survive. One of the problems with legitimizing the use of the term ‘social distancing’ is that it can lead to normalising discrimination.

When the message behind using the term ‘social distancing’ is to reduce physical proximity by ensuring bodily distance the same could mean, to some, distancing from specific groups of people. In a recent development, residents of an area in Mumbai city resisted administration’s efforts to set up temporary shelter provisions for the stranded migrant workers. The residents did not want these people to be around. These social attitudes become disease in themselves while fighting a disease outbreak.

Social distancing has a cost attached to it and privileges of more than one kind are at play when it comes to practicing it. According to the WHO ¬Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus the impact of the pandemic will be different based on where we are located in the social hierarchy. This makes it clear that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis is differentiated across people belonging to different socio-economic groups making it critical especially for those who dependent on social opportunities and relations for earning a livelihood. For example, the loss of livelihood of vegetable sellers belonging to a specific religion due to the calls of boycott of their products.

Another outrageous and shocking incident was when local officials in Bareilly district sprayed disinfectants on a group of migrant labourers after they entered the city. The continuous use of the term also creates an environment in which valid sectional demands of the most vulnerable are delegitimized and antagonised.

Withdrawal of the term

Social distancing should not be a distance between the society and individuals rather there should be increased communication and bridging of any kind of earlier distances and gaps to fight this pandemic. The use of the term social distancing has come under scanner. A number of renowned academics and field specialists opine that the use of the term could cause enormous trauma to those who are already struggling with isolation and anxiety.

The World Health Organization has started using the phrase "physical distancing" instead of "social distancing" a move widely welcomed by experts. WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove announced on March 20 that they are to say physical distance instead of social distance on purpose because they want people to still remain connected. Martin W Bauer, professor of social psychology and research methodology at London School of Economics, says, "It occurred to me from the beginning that this was an unfortunate choice of language to talk about 'social distance', when actually what was meant was 'physical distance." (Aziz, 2020).

Another critique of the continuous use of the term by the officials and those responsible for managing the crisis is that it leads to an individual centric response to the situation. Such crisis management and solution works in favor of those who have resources and privileges to practice social distancing. It should not lead to an indifferent attitude or ostracization of those who require state or social support. In fact, the times of a pandemic require quite an opposite approach i.e. social solidarity with those who are at the receiving end. The recent incident of authorities in Agra throwing eatables and essentials to people at a quarantine centre is an indication enough to know how bad the situation can be at the ground while dealing with those who are kept at a ‘distance’.

It is important to keep in mind that the implications of vocabulary are far reaching. Vocabulary should not become casualty creating machine at a time of a public health crisis. An appropriate and socially aware careful messaging is an important part of the strategy to come out of not only a health but a social crisis. We need to ensure that the choice of the words is inclusive and conveys the message of social solidarity for all sections of society. Given the global and local experience, it is the time to distance ourselves with the term social distancing.

- Prof. Shamsher Singh, Assistant Professor - Sociology

*Views expressed are personal.

 

References:

  • Aziz, Saba. 2020. Why 'physical distancing' is better than 'social distancing'. Aljazeera News. 30 March.
  • Srivastava, Piyush. 2020. Untouchability, even in quarantine. The Telegraph. 12 April.