Why physical distancing is better than social distancing

Staying in is important to stop the spread of coronavirus, but maintaining close ties with loved ones is crucial for mental health

epa08325108 A view of deserted streets of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 26 March 2020. The Ministry of Health and Community Protection and the Ministry of Interior announced on 26 March a three-day national sterilization program to limit the spread of the covid-19 coronavirus. Public traffic, transportation and metro services will be suspended, while citizens were asked to stay home as authorities sanitize all public facilities, streets and  public transportation services.  EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED  ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET
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The UAE has just completed its first week-end of a campaign aimed at disinfecting all public places and public transport.  This has meant everyone remaining home, in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, which has infected at least 700,000 people worldwide.

Officials have thanked Emiratis, residents and visitors for adhering to the call to stay home. As nearly a fifth of the world's population remains home, undoubtedly staying at home for extended periods can feel unsettling, especially as it remains unclear how long this current situation will last.

But these difficult steps are important to keep us safe, and to keep our loved ones from inadvertently contracting the virus. In the UAE, as in many other countries, medical staff, supermarket and restaurant employees, pharmacists and others working in vital sectors are continuing to go to work in order to provide the population with essential healthcare and basic necessities. Their courage and determination is helping to maintain a semblance of normalcy in difficult times, and ultimately to save lives.

The practice of “social distancing” has become the new paradigm in many countries as they endeavour to curb physical contact. It is important to emphasise, however, that maintaining physical distance from people is what is important in stopping the spread of Covid-19. Social interaction, through the use of technology or other means of non-physical communication, is still necessary. In fact, it is paramount to mental health. The World Health Organisation is now using the phrase “physical distancing” in place of “social distancing” in order to add more nuance to its guidance. In the words of WHO official Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, quarantine measures do not mean that “socially, we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.”

In difficult times, social bonds and family ties become all the more important. These things, in fact, are a fundamental part of being human. Keeping contact with acquaintances and loved ones is vital to maintaining mental health and morale.

Technology has proved particularly efficient at helping us to keep in touch, whatever the physical distance that separates us. Applications such as Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp, as well as social media, bring together people from all over the world. In recognition of the need for connection and connectivity, the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has decided to temporarily allow the use of certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications. Skype for business, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Blackboard have all been unblocked in the country. The TRA has also issued a notice to telecommunications companies to refrain from suspending or disconnecting mobile services due to the expiry of supporting documents and Emirates ID.

In difficult times, social bonds and family ties become all the more important

The WHO, meanwhile, has teamed up with the gaming industry in a series of initiatives under the hashtag #PlayApartTogether, encouraging people to connect through video games while practising physical distancing, a fun way to stay entertained while staying safe.

For worshippers, remaining at home for the weekend has also meant forgoing communal religious events, like Friday prayers or Sunday service, for example. Being physically separated from one’s religious community can be challenging at a time when many turn to their local mosque or place of worship for much-needed support. However, it is important to remember that abiding by these new measures is a way of showing love and respect to those who gather to pray every week, by keeping them out of harm’s way. Online communities can also provide a safe haven for those who wish to find communion without jeopardising the health of their community.

Now more than ever, we need to look out for one another to stay healthy, in our minds and bodies.