SOCIAL DISTANCING NOT PHYSICAL DISTANCING: From A Strategic Communication Standpoint.


By Ishola Ayodele

On the 11th of March, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled the coronavirus outbreak has a pandemic. The Medical scientists were the first to suggest the term *”social distancing”* as part of the measures to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The sociologists argued against the use of “social distancing”. They said we got it wrong that social distancing refers to the level of acceptance people have of others outside of their own social group or class. They concluded that, “the strategy to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘physical distancing’ and NOT ‘social distancing’.

The psychologists jumped into the discussion too. They argued that social distancing may not actually lead to social class but social isolation. A situation where an individual becomes withdrawn from people and prefers staying alone. But they agreed with sociologists on the term ‘physical distancing’.

On the 20th of March, 2020 at a daily news briefing the officials of World Health Organization (WHO) started using the phrase “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” as a way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus from people to people (,2020)

From Communication standpoint both the sociologists and psychologists are wrong and WHO has been misled.
To start with, the phrase ‘social distancing’ is made up of two words ‘social’ and ‘distancing’. We understand what ‘distancing’ means but the bone of contention is the meaning of ‘social’.

The sociologists defined the term ‘social’ in relation to status or class. This is just one out of many meanings of ‘social’. As a fact, majority of dictionaries define ‘social’ in term of being or living together, interaction, companionship.
For instance, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word ‘Social’ as

1. relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other

2. liking to be with and talk to people :

3. happy to be with people

4. the act of relating with people or society in general.

5. Status or class.

Therefore, to take one definition as the sole meaning of ‘social’ is NOT sufficient for the argument.

In addendum, a look at the origin or the root word of ‘social’ also defeats the argument of the sociologists and psychologists.

According to the online dictionary of etymology, the word ‘social’ originated from the Latin word ‘socialis’ which means “companionship, allies; united, living with others; of marriage, conjugal.” socialis’ was coined from ‘socius’.

Etymologists dug deeper and discovered that ‘socialis’ or ‘socius’ was first used as ‘Socii’ by the Roman empire as ‘Socii’ states’ to describe the allies of the Roman Republic. That is, kingdoms with which Rome has good relationship & interaction.

Thus, from its root word, the meaning of the word ‘social’ has to do/more with relating or interacting with people as companions or allies than social status/class.

So, the sociologists and psychologists got it WRONG again.

Thirdly, Communication scholars define communication as the sharing of meaning. So, we can say the meaning attached to a word defines that particular word.
For instance,
The word ‘Guy’ comes from the name of a man “Guy Fawkes” who took part in the failed attempt to blow up the US Parliament in 1605. From thence it came to refer to a frightful figure. By 19th century it became a general name for men.

The next question is where does meaning originates from? To answer this question we need to visit the sociocultural school of communication.

The sociocultural school of communication seeks to explain how our understandings, interpretations and meanings of the words are shaped by our interaction with one another in the society as well as our way of life in the society.

For instance,
The word ‘Nice’ used to mean “ignorant,” “Foolish,” or “Silly,” from the Latin word “nescius”. This meaning remains until the 1600s but by 18th century the meaning of ‘Nice’ transformed to ‘pleasant’ or ‘good’.

Around the same time the word ‘Silly’ which used to mean ‘Worthy’ or ‘Blessed’ experienced a changed in meaning to ‘Foolish’

So in a nutshell, the meaning of a words emanates from the interplay of individuals, culture & activities in the society.

Findings from a survey I did shows that, to most people ‘social distancing’ does not mean not relating with your family or looking down on people because they do not belong to your social class or living in isolation contrary to the Sociologists and Psychologists argument.

What most people understand ‘social distancing’ to mean is avoiding social interaction (chatting, discussing, partying, shaking, hugging, kissing, cuddling, etc) with people outside your immediate family.

Finally, Scholars in this school of thought focus on how our environment and the situation around a word influence our understanding and interpretation of that word.

The situation around a word is what they call CONTEXT.

Now Let us look at context.

The only country in the world that has practiced physical distancing is Sweden.

Physical distancing in the real sense means there is no restriction of movement or interaction as long as you keep a two metre distance away from every one else.

In Sweden, You can gather as a group (less than 50) and interact as long as there is a two meters space between everyone of you.

Current statistical evidence shows that this experiment (physical distancing) as it is practice in Sweden has not been successful because compared to her Nordic neighbours Denmark, Norway and Finland who effected movement restriction and social distancing at the outset of the disease.

According to Statista, Sweden’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths has gone up to 5,333 while its neighbours Denmark, Finland and Norway recorded 605, 328, and 250 respectively.

Sweden is also the Nordic country with the highest number of people confirmed infected with the coronavirus, reaching a total of 68,451 cases as of June 30, 2020.

A study by the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UCLA and Princeton University found that the COVID-19 virus survives in the air for up to three hours.

As we know Covid-19 is spread through contact with droplets from sneezing, coughing or talking. Hence, when an infected person coughs or sneezes the tendencies for the people around to contract the virus is high as long as they remained in that place interacting.

This is why Dr. Neeltje van Doremalen, the lead researcher on the study concluded that, “people may acquire the virus through the air and after touching contaminated objects,”

In Conclusion,

In term of preventing the spread covid-19.

The first respondents in the fight against this covid19 are the medical experts in term of the objective/intention (what they want to achieve) which is to prevent human to human transmission of the virus.

The second respondents are the communication experts who are responsible for getting the message (information, education, sensitization, mobilization, enlightenment) across to government and the public in term of meaning (not technical jargon).

The fact is that in the world today at this time of covid19 the closest interpretation of social distancing is not distancing yourself from your family like the Psychologists claimed or creating social class like the sociologists claimed but avoiding any social interaction and crowded area that may make you susceptible to contracting the Covid-19 virus.

Consequently, I strongly believe that the most correct opinion on this debate is that of the American Centre for Disease Control and the American Media who have stuck to the use of social distancing and not physical distancing.

So, it is SOCIAL DISTANCING and not physical distancing.

©️Ishola Ayodele
He is a specialist in Message Engineering. He helps Leaders, Brands, and Organisations communicate in a way that yields the desired result.

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