What’s in a language? Social distancing vs safe distancing

People maintain social distance as they shop during the tenth day of the lockdown imposed by the government amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kathmandu, Nepal April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar - RC26WF9AZUOZ



Social distancing – along with such terms as self-isolation, quarantine, stay-at-home orders, lockdowns – have now become part of everyday conversation as governments across the world seek to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Psychological Association  observes:

Social distancing means keeping a safe distance (approximately 6 feet or 1.5 metres) from others and avoiding gathering spaces such as schools, churches, concert halls, and public transportation.

Yet, dissenting voices have emerged about the validity of using this term. Used in other contexts, social distancing has deeply embedded prejudicial connotations. In South Africa during the apartheid era, ‘social distancing’ of the privileged whites from blacks and the coloured community persisted for a long time. In the de facto caste system of India, social distancing between upper and lower castes is still prevalent. In general, social distancing is a time-honored means of marginalizing the ‘other’. In any case, social distancing as a term implies the severing of human connections that is so essential to one’s emotional and physical well-being. So, why use it in the context of public policy to respond to a global public health crisis?

Not surprisingly, this usage is beginning to change, albeit slowly. One analyst notes:

On March 20, the World Health Organization said it was officially changing its language. “We’re changing to say ‘physical distance,’ and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove announced (pdf) at the organization’s daily press conference. Singapore calls it “safe distancing.” Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki suggests physical distancing or “distant socializing.” “’ Social distancing’ was the wrong term to begin with,” he said in this  Q&A on Stanford’s website.


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