Social connection in a world of physical distancing

It has been fascinating to see how our language has become saturated with new vocabulary in the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 have exponentially increased worldwide. Terms usually reserved for public health curriculums – flatten the curve, self-isolation, self-quarantine, pandemic – are now part of our daily conversations, and are even available as GIFs on Instagram stories. The language we use on a daily basis ultimately shapes the way we behave, and in a time when changing our behavior is critical, we need to be especially careful of which terms we choose to use.

Social distancing, in particular, has garnered traction in the past few weeks. Per the CDC, social distancing is defined as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” The logic is simple – the more we can limit our interactions with others, the more we can prevent respiratory transmission of the virus and slow the exponential growth of new cases being reported each day. Accordingly, our lives have changed drastically. Across the country, schools and universities have closed, employees are being told to stay home from work if they can, and restaurants and service industries are transitioning to delivery models. As a medical student, I have been pulled from clinical rotations, and I have no idea when it will be feasible to go back. Everyone is trying to keep up a sense of normalcy with looming uncertainty and fear about the weeks ahead, all while staying at home.

In times of crisis, people band together. We spend time with close friends and family, maybe sharing a home-cooked meal or watching a movie together. We try to celebrate important life events – graduations, weddings, birthdays. We hold candlelight vigils and fundraisers to show our support for those in need. But during this pandemic, we are being told to stay apart. We need to stay apart. And here, the phrase “social distancing” falls short. We should not be distancing ourselves from our social circles – in fact, we need them now more than ever. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO recently spoke in favor of using the phrase “physical distancing”: “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 … We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected.”

Maintaining our connections carries more weight than simply mitigating our own boredom at home. Social isolation, the state of being physically separated from other people, as well as loneliness, the perception of social isolation, have both been studied in relation to physical and mental health. The health implications of loneliness are well-documented – it is a risk factor for increased morbidity and mortality, cognitive decline, and depression, especially among older adults. While social isolation is certainly a contributor to loneliness, studies have shown that it is ultimately the quality of our relationships that has a stronger effect. It is difficult to predict how long we will need to practice physical distancing for, and the longer that we need to stay indoors, the more important it is for our physical and emotional health to stay connected to our communities.

On a more macro level, we not only need to think about surviving this pandemic, but we also need to start thinking about our recovery from it. Building community resilience, “the sustained ability of a community to withstand and recover from adversity,” is widely acknowledged as a critical strategy in responding to and recovering from widespread emergencies. Part of this is structural – passing the policies and creating the programs we need to ensure financial stability, social services, and access to healthcare services. But part of this process is more in our control. Per this article, key components of community resilience also include our level of social connectedness and the development of social networks. These are things we can start working on now, even from our homes. Communities are providing virtual tours of museums and exhibits, making free programs on language and culture exchange available online, creating volunteer programs to distribute meals to children from local schools, and coordinating programs for students to call senior citizens at nursing homes to help them feel more connected. By working on programs to maintain the strength of our communities, we might be able to alleviate some of the uncertainty we face each day, and we can continue to maintain hope and focus on the future.

Ultimately, the phrase social distancing is inadequate in encompassing our task for the next few months. We need to stay physically distanced, but our social connections need to be stronger than ever. It is a vital part of maintaining our mental and physical health, and will be even more important when we are fortunate enough to say that we can shift our focus to rebuilding.

Avneet Soin is a medical student.

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