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Is ‘social distancing’ the wrong term? Expert prefers ‘physical distancing,’ and the WHO agrees.

Teachers, staff and bus drivers from Coolspring Elementary School in Michigan City, Ind., visit students March 24 via a caravan of vehicles.
Teachers, staff and bus drivers from Coolspring Elementary School in Michigan City, Ind., visit students March 24 via a caravan of vehicles. (Kelley Smith/The News Dispatch/AP)
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The government, media organizations and meme creators have all embraced the term “social distancing” when discussing how to stem the coronavirus pandemic. But Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, is concerned that the term is misleading and that its widespread usage could be counterproductive. The World Health Organization has come to the same conclusion. Last week, it started using the term Aldrich prefers: “physical distancing.”

 Aldrich says efforts taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus should encourage strengthening social ties while maintaining that physical distancing. In a tweet, he lauded young people running errands for elderly neighbors for practicing “social connectedness with physical distance.”

“These social ties are the critical element to getting through disasters,” said Aldrich. As director of the Security and Resilience Program, he researches how communities show resilience under major shocks, such as war, natural disasters and pandemics, focusing on the role of networks and cohesion.

Across the United States and the globe, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine and a treatment to contain the novel coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

Aldrich has been reaching out to his colleagues and decision-makers about his concern regarding the usage of social distancing, and he said some public health authorities and nongovernmental organizations are shifting their language accordingly.

The WHO independently started using the term “physical distancing” last week. “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 in the organization’s March 20 daily press briefing.

Social distancing, which refers to creating physical space between one another and avoiding large gatherings, comes from public health and epidemiology lexicon. Aldrich said he thinks the semantics are misleading. “Some people think the [term] social distancing literally sounds like, ‘If I had friendships before, it’s time to hunker down. Or, if I were a member of a church or synagogue, it’s time to pray by myself,’ ” he said. “But the covid-19 order is going to be around for a while, and we need to feel connected.”

He’s heard anecdotally about people who have stopped attending religious services or the gym, for example, but aren’t reaching out through technology to maintain their social connections.

 Aldrich is particularly concerned about the elderly and infirm, who are even less likely to have the tech-savviness to maintain social ties. He urges their loved ones to reach out through notes, phone calls or by leaving groceries on porches.

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Aldrich’s research shows that the communities that survive and rebuild most effectively after disasters are those with strong social networks, which can share lifesaving information with one another. The people and communities that fare the worst are the ones with vulnerable populations who have weak social ties and lack trust and cohesion. Such people — as the 1995 Chicago heat wave, the 2018 Camp Fire in California and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan showed — are often the first to perish in a disaster.

 In the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., Aldrich found that the people who didn’t survive were often the ones who didn’t have strong social connections. “The people who got out in time had people calling ahead of time, before the fire arrived, saying, ‘It’s time to go,’ ” he said.

Aldrich found similar results about who followed evacuation orders after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. In Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown, Aldrich found widely uneven death rates in coastal communities: places where everyone survived, and places where 1 in 10 residents died. “The communities where no one died had incredibly strong social cohesion. They were able to evacuate and help everyone out of their homes,” he said.

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Some experts don’t think the current language needs to or should be changed. While conceding that Aldrich has a point about the importance of maintaining social connections, Lori Peek, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the director of the National Hazards Center, said “social distancing” has already taken root.  

“People understand what [social distancing] is,” she said. “They are adopting it as individuals, and organizations are adopting policies that are rooted in this protective action.”

She wouldn’t alter any terminology at this point, she added, because it is important to maintain clear and consistent messages from trusted sources. “Anything that could further confuse the public is really dangerous,” Peek said. “Trust me, I am an academic. I love talking about language and words, but right now this is a matter of life and death.”

Robert Olshansky, emeritus professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sees a paradox in the term social distancing. “The paradox is that we are being very collaborative and social by mutually agreeing to stay six feet away from each other,” he said. “The term ‘social distancing’ implies that we have to become a more separate and individual society, but there is no way we are going to survive this problem and emotionally support ourselves through this if that is what we do.”

But Olshansky, who has studied how communities recover after large urban disasters, said that, in this instance, it is abundantly clear that social distancing is a physical, not a social, requirement. 

“People are thinking about being solitary in their homes, but in all of my online networks, I am not sensing that people are being alone, just physically separating themselves.”

In the San Francisco Bay area, where he lives, he said he sees walkers waving hello to him through his picture window and stepping off trails and sidewalks to allow six feet between other people when passing. 

He and Aldrich agree about the importance of social networks in surviving and recovering from disasters. In studying anxiety after Japan’s twin disasters, Aldrich found that the single biggest factor — more than wealth or physical health — that accounted for the levels of anxiety for people sheltering indoors was whether they had a neighbor or a friend they could talk to regularly. “However bad it is, however nervous I am, having these friends make it better. There is emotional support that we can get as well.” 

Such social connections are necessary not just to combat the pandemic, but for rebuilding and recovering, Olshansky said. “History has shown us that collaborative, mutually supportive communities are the ones that are most successful at sustainably recovering from large disasters.” 

Rebecca Gale is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md., who covers health, politics and policy.