Why It Matters
Even in the face of a pandemic and the need for physical distancing, "human creativity and need for connection are ever growing and ever flowing, particularly during tough times."
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Let's Stick Together While Staying Apart

By Pedro Delgado | Thursday, March 19, 2020

Stick Together While Apart

Photo by Omar Flores | Unsplash

Social distancing: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection

These are trying times.

Routines have been severely disrupted for individuals and families all over the globe. As we learn to manage our daily lives under new conditions, the language we choose to use in order to frame what is currently happening, matters. We live in language — it creates and generates. Language has a direct impact on our emotions, and on the emotions of all around us.

With this in mind, I want to invite a reflection around the language of social distancing (definition above, and more useful info here). I’m personally concerned about the impact of the social distancing choice of language on people’s mental health — just to be clear, I do wholeheartedly support the actions suggested by social distancing to reduce the transmission of infection and believe every reader of this piece should follow the recommendations of their local government at this time. We need to work together to flatten the curve. However, the language of social distancing conveys a sense of isolation (“I need to create distance socially”). Isolation as a daily reality is not helpful psychologically — the intuitive truth of this statement is well backed by scientific evidence, as is the connection between immune system strength and psychological well-being. Furthermore, this Science post from a couple of days ago describes some of the unintended consequences of social distancing (the act).

What I’m seeing so far in Europe and the US is a very strong sense of solidarity and creativity where people are finding ways to stay together, to live through this in community — you may have seen the Italian building to building sing along, the Spanish building to building bingo, the Scottish neighborhood letter to offer help with food and shopping, or been part of parents’ Whatsapp groups supporting each other to keep their kids’ education going in virtual spaces. There are many more examples emerging daily — human creativity and need for connection are ever growing and ever flowing, particularly during tough times. If you have any doubts about this, take a peek at Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in HellThe Extraordinary. Communities That Arise in Disaster.

My invitation is that we consider translating the language of social distancing in our interactions at home, with those closest to us, and in our communities to something different in order to avoid any connections to isolation, using a more optimistic frame in our language to describe what is required: social togetherness, with physical distancing. How could we support with actions the use of this new language? Firstly, by being open to shifting the high-level interpretation of what is currently happening from something being ‘done to’ us, to something ‘done for’ us — meaning, there are plenty of opportunities in challenging times for us to choose to grow personally and socially. Secondly, by leveraging the power of instant communication technologies to stay connected — I have seen early testing of simple things like daily Facetime calls to our loved ones, to more sophisticated and fun things like a 15 minute ‘daily dance’ group Zoom video conference for free. Thirdly, by displaying tolerance, solidarity, compassion and kindness in all of our interactions during this time of high emotional pressure.

As days go by, we will need more and more social togetherness to build the psychological strength that will allow us to get through the weeks to come in a state of well-being and possibility, whilst keeping the necessary and urgent physical distance that is required.

These are trying times. Stay healthy, stay safe.

Pedro Delgado, MSc, is head of IHI's Europe and Latin America business development.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published by Medium on March 18, 2020, and has been reposted here with the author's permission. It was originally published with the headline, "Social togetherness, physical distancing."

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COVID-19 Clinical Practice Guidance and Resources

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