Why we should talk about physical distancing, not social distancing

Dr Helen Jarvis is a Reader in Social Geography at Newcastle University and a member of Tyne and Wear Citizens (part of Citizens UK). Here she reflects on the importance of the language we use during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

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We need to talk about physical distancing….

Please stop using the phrase social distancing. This is my plea. As a social scientist who also volunteers with Citizens UK, I am deeply uneasy about social isolation and segregation outliving the Coronavirus crisis, and wish to add my voice to the growing chorus of those calling for a change in the language we use.

What we need is physical distancing and social connectedness. The words we choose to use make a difference.

Since March 2020, the UK government has been urging people to reduce their social contact.  Measures have been introduced that require all except key workers to stay home, to only go out for restricted daily exercise and groceries, and when out in public to stay two metres from other people at all times.  These confinement measures are spatial, intended to reduce virus transmission through physical contact.

There is nothing intrinsically social, or indeed anti-social, about practising safe distancing. When we walk or cycle to school and to work, the Highway Code and road safety education emphasise keeping a safe distance (a wide berth) between pedestrians and vehicles travelling at speed. We would find it odd to hear that ‘social distancing’ reduces road traffic accidents, so why is this language being used to enforce essential hygiene in a global pandemic?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently acknowledged that it had made mistakes in this regard, and have since changed their communications around this.  A spokesperson from WHO HQ in Geneva observed that colleagues are:

“practising physical distancing as one measure to stop COVID-19 transmission:  (we) use the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing to highlight that essential distancing to prevent the virus from transferring to one another doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones (and responsibilities toward wider communities). We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to remain connected”1

The confusing and ambiguous language of ‘social distancing’ makes the same mistake as the false ‘social’ signification in ‘social contact design’ – popular among civic leaders who have adopted principles of ‘new urbanism’ and ‘nudge’ theory.  The guiding principles of ‘social contact design’ falsely represent physical contact as social contact – believing that a sense of community can be ‘engineered’ by designing ways for residents to meet and interact in public space, such as the park or street. Critics observe that meaningful social interactions are rarely engineered by design but instead reliant upon ‘soft’ relational cultures – relationship assets of shared purpose, mutual trust and understanding.

In recent years I have been part of Tyne and Wear Citizens (part of Citizens UK), a broad-based alliance of civic institutions working together through a mutually agreed framework of community organising to listen to our communities and agree priorities. The Citizens model of community organising, which is rooted in a relational culture of deep listening and alliance building, strengthens the relationship assets that are necessary to mend the fractured fabric of our civil society.  This contrasts with the limited extent that well-designed public spaces (although greatly missed when use is rationed) can forge mutual trust by ‘thrown togetherness’ alone. We recognise that these social characteristics of alliance building are flourishing in our member institutions in the current emergency situation. This is also evident in groups of volunteers organising mutual aid throughout the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK.

Unfortunately, the more accurate term ‘physical distancing’ is not taking off. Once terms become normalised (by government and mainstream broadcasting) they are very hard to shift. This worries us because we have witnessed in a climate of austerity and post-Brexit how careless talk quite literally costs lives. That social distancing contributes to both structural and physical violence is evident when comparing such careless talk to rising hate crimes, the toxic state of public discourse, social injustice in poverty wages, poor mental health and patterns of increasing domestic violence and misogynistic abuse.  Citizens UK recognise that community organising around issues of shared concern is more important than ever to ensure we can remake civil society and build a better future, in the united way that we respond to Coronavirus. This requires social connection, not distancing.

From the beginning of this period of unprecedented restriction to movement and effective house arrest, friends and neighbours have been acting on their impulses to help those around them. This includes forming Mutual Aid Groups and swelling the ranks of the New Volunteer Service, delivering groceries and telephoning those who are sick at home or in protective isolation. In my own neighbourhood, people who previously knew little about each other have been connecting socially in creative ways (swapping jigsaws, stories and vital baking ingredients) without physically being in the same space.

In short, how we talk about distancing (physical, not social) influences the cultural context in which we navigate and negotiate our collective exit from this pandemic. For all our sakes, we must build on the common ground of mutuality and unity – rediscovering a spirit of community that respects and values all human beings. 

This blog also appears on the Citizens UK website: https://www.citizensuk.org/physical-distancing

1 WHO (2020) Covid-19. Available at: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/transcripts/who-audio-emergencies-coronavirus-press-conference-full-20mar2020.pdf?sfvrsn=1eafbff_0