In a recent public address, officials of the World Health Organization (WHO), tracking the COVID-19 outbreak and tasked with issuing guidelines to countries the world over on best practices for mitigating the global pandemic, said they were adopting a new terminology to replace social distancing: physical distancing.

Social distancing has been one of the buzzwords since the new coronavirus infection broke out in Wuhan, China late last year, and has claimed over 48,000 lives and infected nearly a million people globally. The intention behind the phrase was to introduce a practice of maintaining a distance between individuals, in person.

Even the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India explained the term as "a non-pharmaceutical infection prevention and control intervention implemented to avoid/decrease contact between those who are infected with a disease causing pathogen and those who are not, so as to stop or slow down the rate and extent of disease transmission in a community".

The WHO, however, recently changed that phrase by calling it “physical distancing”, as the earlier method gave rise to different interpretations. WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said, "You may have heard us use the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing... so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another. But it doesn't mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family."

Read more: 10 safe ways to engage socially while maintaining healthy distance

  1. How is physical distancing different from social distancing?
  2. Why is physical distancing important in India?
  3. Tips to practice physical distancing
  4. Takeaways

Essentially, the term social distancing or social isolation ended up having negative connotations as well as a negative impact on the practice of isolating oneself as nationwide lockdowns and curfews have been imposed in countries across the world. India, for example, has been under a 21-day lockdown since March 25.

Van Kerkhove went on to add that the change to saying physical distancing was effected "on purpose because we want people to still remain connected".

According to the WHO’s guidelines, maintaining at least a one metre distance between people as the SARS-Cov-2 virus can be transmitted in the air through droplets released while talking, coughing or sneezing. Most countries, however, have stressed on maintaining at least a two-metre distance among each other.

Following these guidelines are essential in preventing more people from becoming infected around the world. In India, over 2000 cases have already been reported with 58 deaths caused by the infection in various parts of the country. The Government of India maintains that the disease is still in Stage 2 of transmission, which means infected patients can still be tracked down.

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With global cases, particularly in European countries like Italy, Spain and France continuing to be on a sharp rise, and the United States of America having reported more than three lakh positive cases alone, it is essential for India to impose stringent measures to control the spread of the disease, with a population of 1.3 billion at the risk of infection.

Maintaining physical distance between one another is being viewed as an essential practice in limiting the spread of the infection, and the shutting down of offices, schools, airports and other places of public gatherings has been implemented throughout the country. 

Physical distancing, or social distancing as it was known earlier, is important not only to stop people from coming into contact with others who may be infected by the virus

  • To limit the number of people getting themselves tested or admitted in hospitals, as the chances of infection are even higher in such places. 
  • It is also done to reduce the load on healthcare workers from being inundated with a large number of patients at the same time.

Read more: 3 steps India should take now to be better prepared for futire epidemic outbreaks

Governments and civic bodies across the world have issued instructions to maintain personal hygiene as well as guidelines for physical distancing. These include:

  • Avoiding social gatherings and public spaces.
  • Keeping a distance of six feet from other people.
  • Working from home and remaining indoors as much as possible, and following all precautions when stepping out. Only step out when absolutely necessary.
  • Staying in touch with family, friends and neighbours by calling or messaging them.

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One of the key reasons behind the WHO’s decision to call the practice physical distancing instead of social distancing is to remove the connotation about people’s mental wellbeing.

Various subject matter experts had viewed social distancing as a term to stop people from communicating with each other, despite the presence of technology and various means of communication in the 21st century. Using the phrase 'physical distancing' implies maintaining a physical distance, but not alienating each other completely and cutting off other means of communication, in order to preserve mental wellbeing among citizens.

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