It is a mantra that seemed to have been plucked straight out of obscurity for those who had never heard of it before just as the coronavirus pandemic dug its ugly claws into the fabric of American life. And since then, it has been perfusing our cultural ether for the last several weeks—aggressively occupying the webpages across the internet, leaping onto the headlines of newspapers, and frequently serving as the conversational cynosure of medical pundits everywhere as we flip from one news channel to the next or scroll through our newsfeeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms. This all-too-familiar catchphrase used by medical professionals and non-medical professionals alike implores individuals to limit close contacts and mass congregations, and instead separate, sequester, and ensconce themselves somewhere in order to curtail the progression of pathogen transmission and disease spread.
Everything looks good and sounds good on paper. The only problem is, the term “social distancing” is neither accurate for what we are actually doing right now nor optimal for what our country currently needs, and what we should be promulgating to the general public. Furthermore, this phrase “social distancing” in many ways serves as a precarious misnomer that has the ability to limit our capacity to see the latent potential we all have to manifest our civic agency, and exercise our political and social self-efficacy during a time of unparalleled national crisis. For a while we are able to infer what “social distancing” proscribes: It does very little to indicate what “social” behaviors ought to be prescribed.
In many ways, if you are definitionally practicing “social” distancing, you are actually part of the problem and should disengage from it immediately. The reason is that what we are essentially enjoining the general population to do is not to “socially” distance, but to “physically” distance and to reinforce and even bulk up the “social” components of our communal engagement that has gradually become attenuated as more time has elapsed since the incipience of the COVID-19 outbreak. Thus, it is better that we exercise precision in our characterization of the current state and move to amend our current putative understanding of “social distancing” to what it actually is: physical distancing.
You may be asking yourself, “Why is it so crucial that we make this change in expression? Why does it matter at all?” And to that end, I propose that we must first recognize that now more than ever, we need to become more socially intertwined, intimate, and close with one another emotionally, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually as a tight-knit family and as a hurting nation. We need to dismantle the social partitions and obstacles that stymie our ability to look out for one another. After all, the only way that we are going to get out of this alive is if we are in it together: connecting with those we love and care for, reaching out to others and making sure they are okay (particularly those who live alone or have elevated health vulnerability), and maintaining communication and contact through novel, innovative means. Certainly, we should physically distance from others; but socially, we ought to maintain and bolster our bonds and relationships, perhaps even create new ones, and close the social gaps that currently exist that are precipitating harm onto people as we speak.
Inspiringly, innovative modalities of bridging these gaps (i.e., humanitarian crises) have sprung up all across the nation in the past few weeks that have gained national acclaim, a far cry from the seemingly bleak prospects of a disheartened nation that had become disillusioned with the never-ending harrowing news bleeding off our screens and slicing through the threads of our frayed heartstrings as of late. Some of these laudable initiatives include: volunteering to purchase and deliver groceries to those who are the most susceptible to health complications should viral transmission occur, creating and distributing home-made hand sanitizer after local shelves had been besieged and plundered, crowdsourcing personal protective equipment for medical personnel working on the frontlines, and more. These commendable efforts further illustrate that we should become progressively more socially integrated (and not distanced) because so many of our fellow human beings currently depend on the auspices and magnanimity of others for their continued survival.
What’s more, a pandemic, though terribly unfortunate, is perhaps the impetus that will re-invigorate a nation that is desperate for change. We cannot squander away this (hopefully) once-in-a-century perfect storm that has been undeniably conducive to the formation of a broad coalition among the general populace that has taken upon itself to more deeply engage in social activism and advocacy for not only themselves, but those who are the most disenfranchised and disempowered in our society. Now is the time to socially un-distance from each other and help keep morale and build camaraderie. Now is the time to socially un-distance, by leveraging and repurposing whatever skills, experiences, and knowledge we have to cultivate a culture of revolutionary and purposeful thinking, and foster a community of re-energized people ready to tackle the scourge of this ever-expansive affliction head-on. Now is the time to socially un-distance and self-actualize our dormant potential by contributing to the political activism, social advocacy, and cultural movements necessary to shift and propel our society towards a brighter future … a better tomorrow.
The brilliance, the desire, and the progress are all there; now we just need the language we use to talk about the current state to catch up and thrust us further than we had ever imagined. Most of all, we need to mobilize all of the tools we have to subconsciously galvanize people to action: this includes the very words we use to frame our actions and thoughts.
At the risk of sounding excessively captious with diction and phraseology, humorously (but also un-humorously), I think we ought to append to “physical distancing” a new phrase I would like to call “social loving.” Essentially, we ought to socially love one another more by, after making sure to take care of ourselves, amplifying and materializing our externalized concern in ways that are both tangible and intangible for those we have the distinct privilege of sharing this world with, who need our love, our care, and our attention more than ever.
Social distancing? I think not. We have to and should do everything but.
Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.
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