In recent years, the concept of bringing us all together and doing things for an all-encompassing good has produced many benefits. Yet now, for the benefit of everyone, we are being asked to stay away from each other. Perhaps the biggest concept to emerge from the coronavirus crisis, which has gripped so many in the world over the last months, is social distancing.
Generally defined, social distancing involves maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or, if possible, avoiding contact with people and objects in public places in order to minimise exposure to and potentially prevent the spread of an infectious disease.
Of course, breaking the term down, it consists of social and distancing. Derived from the Latin socialis, meaning ‘of companions or living with others’, social was first used in the sense of an inclination towards being in the company of others by Scottish bishop William Cowper, who stated in his 1611 work, The Anatomy of a Christian Man, that: “Neither in this life nor in the life to come, hath God ordained man to live alone. By his first creation he was made a social creature.” Distancing, being the action noun (gerund) of distance and defined as maintaining or keeping separate by a distance, comes from the Latin distare, meaning ‘to stand apart’, and first appeared in English via John Webb’s 1658 translation of Hymen’s Præludia by Gauthier de Costes, seigneur de la Calprenède, where he transcribes: “To regret the distancing of Coriolanus, whom she fled, and whose Infidelity she detested.”
As for the term itself, though it is now associated with illness, the origin can be found in a research article published by Administrative Science Quarterly on 1 September, 2003 entitled: “Keeping Directors in Line: Social Distancing as a Control Mechanism in the Corporate Elite,” where James D. Westphal and Poonam Khanna examine how corporate elites resist self-limiting pressure from stakeholders. With 2003 also being the year of the SARS coronavirus outbreak, a derivative of the term first found its way into medical usage in a 2004 article in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, written by David M. Bell and the World Health Organization Working Group on Prevention of International and Community Transmission of SARS, outlining the measures taken to increase social distance: “Measures to increase social distance, e.g., canceling mass gatherings; closing schools, theaters, and public facilities; and requiring masks for all persons using public transport, working in restaurants, or entering hospitals, were implemented in areas where extensive unlinked community transmission of SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was suspected”.
17 years later, social distancing – avoiding public gatherings and between people maintaining a distance of at least 1-2 meters / 3-6 feet (depending on WHO or CDC guidelines) is seen as a basic protective measure. The logic is that, considering personal proximity and the ability of the coronavirus to survive and remain airborne, this will help to limit the population exposure and, using the current terminology, “flatten the epidemic curve.”
Research has proven these measures to be true and successful, but coming with certain hardships: when social beings are tasked with being, essentially, antisocial, it can easily increase feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, etc. As some have suggested, with the coronavirus situation, we have to maintain social distancing at a time when we desperately need the comfort of family, friends and social interactions; however, we can all take solace in the understanding that we’re all in this together.