May 14, 2020 (5:36 PM)

6 min read


Artwork by Moammar Nawang

For most of us, observing social distancing amid the threat of COVID-19 has been awfully alienating and psychologically distressing. Resisting the urge to hug a loved one after a long day or wishing to reach out to them only through our devices while on video chat, we may feel that social distancing is somehow a form of physical and emotional torture—we want to express and at the same time satisfy our human need for touch, yet we also ruefully forego this since maintaining a form of ‘social distance’ is scientifically prescribed to reduce our chances of contracting the deadly virus. 

Indeed, what could be more frustrating than realizing that the physical gestures which give us comfort amid these uncertain times are the same things which could potentially endanger our lives?

At first glance, this may be the only aspect of ‘social distancing’ which we find difficult and, to an extent, problematic. But social distancing, in the finest sense of the term, is tough pandemic lingo in more ways than one. 

Physical over social distancing 

First, the term is technically flawed.

Last March 20, the World Health Organization (WHO) in a press briefing, announced that it was moving away from the term ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’. This came amid concerns that the physical isolation required during quarantines could take a toll on mental health. 

“We’ve been saying ‘physical distancing’ because it’s important to remain physically separate but socially connected,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said.

“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 with people,” she added.

Based on epidemiology lexicon, social distancing refers to “creating physical space between one another and avoiding large gatherings.” Since the onset of the pandemic, some experts have expressed skepticism with the term, saying that it may mislead people into hunkering down from significant relationships or resolving to do traditional group activities, like praying or studying, individually.

“There’s no lockdown on laughter. There’s no lockdown on talking to your family and finding ways to connect,” Van Kerkhove emphasized.

Although most of us might have grown used to using ‘social distancing’ throughout the length of this pandemic, looking to accustom ourselves with ‘physical distancing’ instead at a time when most of us are more susceptible to bouts of fear and anxiety might make all the difference.

Physical distancing as class-based

Physical distancing is much more than just a technical matter, though. Exploring further the breadth and depth of the term, some social scientists have argued that it also involves an issue of class. Anthropologists Maria Carinnes Alejandria, Joshua San Pedro, and Gideon Lasco, shared their insights on physical and social distancing in a webinar last April 21. 

“In some places, like in Baseco compound, space is a value that is not shared in the same way that we do. Most of the time, houses are just about 10 to 20 square meters and houses are almost attached to one another and space here is used in multiple contexts—a sleeping area, cooking area, living area, and whatnot—and most of the time there are 7 to 10 members using this,” Dr. Alejandria, who conducted field research in one of Manila’s urban poor settlements, shared.

“There are no spaces for isolation in houses in Baseco. So physical distancing within the house and even outside of the house is a big challenge for communities like this,” she added.

Like the policy on frequent handwashing and the recommendation on balanced nutrition to help combat the spread of the virus, Alejandria believes that physical distancing is a privilege that some of the urban poor simply cannot afford. 

Meanwhile, Dr. San Pedro, also a community physician, expounded on how ‘social distance’ has been existing even prior to COVID-19.

“The reason why a lot of social scientists disagree with the term ‘social distancing’ is [that] aside from it really just being about physical distancing, it reinforces that social distance—the social distance that has been present in our society because of that class divide, the wealth divide, and even the health access. So it predates our pandemic but it is furthered because of these social distancing protocols,” he explained.

To cite an example, San Pedro mentioned the social distance in terms of health access.  According to him, our health policies, ridden with privileged assumptions “that every individual has that working-class-level home to do self-quarantine”, alienates individuals who live in small and tight spaces.  

Maintaining a critical gaze 

Inasmuch as COVID-19 is perceived to ignore the barriers of age, class, and education, among others—making us all equally vulnerable—positionality plays a vital role in the discussion of trying to rethink ‘social distancing’. Ultimately, these is no single narrative when it comes the pandemic and how it affects lives at different strata of the social pyramid.

“I want to assert the multiplicity of the pandemic. It’s not just one thing that people experience homogenously, but it’s actually different experiences coming together depending on where you are, depending on demographics and temporality,” Dr. Lasco emphasized.

“We cannot ‘COVIDize’ people’s lives by assuming that the virus is their paramount concern. For people in BASECO and in many other communities, they need to eat every day, they need to fend for their families, they’re afraid of violence and other threats that have already been there all along,” he added.

Almost two months since physical distancing became the new normal in the country, many are of the opinion that COVID-19 exposed long-existing flaws in our government and society as a whole. The problems brought about by physical distancing, especially to the urban poor, is a case in point.

Since it has been found that not everyone has the luxury to observe this physical distance, interventions seeking to address COVID-related issues now call for greater action, such as confronting issues on poverty and inequality.

“Our focus should be on people, not the virus. We cannot simply focus on COVID and abandon our critical gaze on other forms of suffering because they remain, and we should still be engaged with all of these other issues,” Lasco concluded. 

Still a far cry from ‘flattening the curve’, problematizing taken-for-granted pandemic terms like ‘social distancing’ might slowly deepen our understanding about what it is we are really facing. More than that, it might finally allow us to reflect on what we need to overcome as a nation if we are to truly survive this pandemic.

End the silence of the gagged!

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