Monday, March 23, 2020

Physical distance, social solidarity

[Yesterday, a meeting of the Sydney Alliance Council passed a motion about the language the Alliance and partner organisations are going to use in the face of COVID-19 ... with so many stories of social isolation and disconnection emerging, there's a general aversion to the language of "social distancing". I was asked to write a short backgrounder for that discussion ... so figured I'd post here too.]

In order to minimise the transmission of COVID-19, public health authorities recommend that we keep a distance of 1.5m between ourselves and others, and avoid gatherings in confined spaces, where possible.

The term that is being used for such measures is “social distancing.” These measures are essential to slowing the transmission of the virus and ‘flattening the curve’. But this terminology is unfortunate.

Until relatively recently, “social distancing” was a term used mostly by social scientists to describe the practices that we use to maintain social disconnection from others in a crowded urban context of physical proximity. “Social distancing”, in this sense of the term, describes the kind of thing that happens when we share a crowded space such as a train carriage or a bus with strangers. Our bodies are in close physical proximity, but we maintain a kind of emotional and relational ‘distance’ from the people sitting around us.

The term “social distancing” has also been used by social scientists to describe the ways that some people are forcefully disconnected from proximate others – through discrimination, stigma, and other forms of misrecognition. For example, we might talk about the ways that homeless people on the street are “socially distanced”, as countless people pass by them on the street without recognition or connection. Those who are the victims of this kind of social distancing are often treated as though their stigma is ‘contagious’.

But somehow, the meaning of “social distancing” has been turned on its head. The term “social distancing” is being used to describe what ought to be termed “physical distancing”.

Used in its original sense, the last thing we need in a pandemic is more “social distancing”. We do need physical distancing. But we need social solidarity and connection. Without that social solidarity and connection, people are atomised and left to fend for themselves. And we know exactly who will suffer the most if that is allowed to occur.

This language matters. The constant invocations to isolate and create social distance send a message about the social, not just the physical. We can already see a form of “social distancing” in action in our supermarkets – and it’s not good! People are socially distancing themselves from other shoppers in the aisle and in their community, and from the staff trying to stock the shelves and operate the checkouts.

We must ensure that in a time when physical distance is required, social distance is not increased. Neither the indifference of the crowded train carriage nor our aversion towards the stigmatised are good models for the kind of care, compassion and collective solidarity we need to deal with this pandemic in a manner that leaves no-one behind.

We will need to improvise new ways to stay socially connected, lest physical distance make even more people vulnerable to social distancing, with all its harmful consequences for their access to the resources and relationships that sustain a decent life.

We have powerful tools at our disposal to maintain social solidarity while keeping physical distance. There will inevitably be a focus on the way that social media is being deployed to enable mutual aid across our city. But this is not just about technology. It’s also about the institutions of civil society – institutions which are the critical social infrastructure upon which everyday relationships of support and care are built.

If we’re to avoid creating a city which emerges from this crisis even more socially distanced than it began, we need to think about what kind ‘stimulus package’ we will need for civil society, not just the economy. Many civil society institutions were already stretched even before most of us knew what a coronavirus was, thanks to their efforts in addressing the extraordinary circumstances created by the bushfires, and thanks to decades of government cuts.

So, as much as we must celebrate the hopeful stories of individual acts of kindness, we must also demand that the vital structural role of civil society be acknowledged and supported – politically, and materially.

As my union has been saying, solidarity is the best medicine.

NTEU Campaign


  1. Physical contact and small liquid droplets that may carry a virus from others might infect you, so keeping a distance minimises those risks. This will help slow down the speed of community transmission and flatten the curve, which means that everyone in need can receive dedicated care in healthcare facilities. How can you contribute to social distancing at work and at home:

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