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Social Distancing

Social Distancing

For a vast majority of the common people in India the words ‘social distancing’ are alien and it is not in their ethos. For ages, people have learned to live together as groups/communities. Due to coivd-19 pandemic situation the ‘forced’ social distancing has come to the people as a shock. They do not know what to do.         

Social distancing puts space between people. When people who are infected with the  virus  stay away from others, they cannot pass it to anyone else. This way, fewer people get sick at the same time and the doctors and hospitals are able to treat those who need medical care.  

Social distancing means:

·      going out only for valid reasons – purchase of food items, medicine or visiting hospital  

·      closing schools, restaurants, non-grocery shops, movie theaters, and other places where people usually gather

·      not getting together in person with friends and relatives

·      working from home if possible

·      stoppage of public transportation

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials are asking us to do something that does not come naturally to our very social species: Stay away from each other. Such social distancing - avoiding large gatherings and close contact with others - is crucial for slowing the spread of the virus and preventing our health care system from getting overwhelmed. But it is not proving to be an easy task.

These days the politicians visit several places for distribution of masks, sanitizers, money and grocery items. Each politician goes with a big crowd of party people and media persons. They preach social distancing but never follow themselves. What an irony!    

“The coronavirus spreading around the world is calling on us to suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection: seeing our friends, getting together in groups, or touching each other. Social distancing also tests the human capacity for cooperation,” says Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician at Yale University.  

The effects of short-term social distancing have not been well studied, but several researchers - most of them scrambling to deal with disruptions to their own lives because of the coronavirus - recently took time to share some thoughts with  Science Insider on the potential social and psychological impacts, and how to mitigate them.

Over long periods of time, social isolation can increase the risk of a  variety of health problems , including heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death. A 2015 meta-analysis of the scientific literature by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a research psychologist at Brigham Young University, and colleagues determined that chronic social isolation  increases the risk of mortality  by 29%.

Lab studies by Holt-Lunstad and others have found that having a friend present can reduce a person’s cardiovascular response to a stressful task. There is even a correlation between perceived social connectedness and stress responses. “Just knowing that you have someone you can count on if needed is enough to dampen some of those responses even if that person is not physically present,” Holt-Lunstad says.

“People of all ages are susceptible to the ill effects of social isolation and loneliness”, Holt-Lunstad says. But a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (of which she was a co-author) highlights some reasons that  older people may be more susceptible , including the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments like hearing loss that can make it harder to interact.

Can technology help compensate for some of the downsides of social distancing?

Texting, email, and apps like Skype and Face Time can definitely help people stay in touch. “We are fortunate to live in an era where technology will allow us to see and hear our friends and family, even from a distance,” says Chris Segrin, a Behaviour Scientist.

“Even so, those modes of communication do not entirely replace face-to-face interactions”, Segrin says. “When we interact with other people, a lot of the meaning conveyed between two people is actually not conveyed in the actual words, but in non-verbal behavior,” he says. A lot of those subtleties of body language, facial expressions, and gestures can get lost with electronic media.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages across the globe insidiously, social distancing measures - particularly work from home - are being put in place to curb its spread. But, doubts about the efficacy of work from home lingers as the Indian economy, already on tenterhooks, braces itself for the inevitable economic impact of the outbreak.

Despite these concerns, companies cutting across sectors like information technology, media organisations and automotive have resorted to instituting mandatory work-from-home or remote work policies as social distancing reduces the chances of the spread of the virus. S everal studies show that people who work from home are more productive. However, for over extended periods, there is also the risk of isolation and reduction in creativity which is often spurred by social interactions.

A few days ago Mr. Sujit Nair, the Managing Editor of HW News Network visited one of the construction sites in Mumbai to distribute food to the migrant labourers staying there. He was shocked to see their pathetic living conditions. They were almost starving and not in a position to maintain social distancing.

There are certain danger zones in India such as urban slums, gypsy/nomadic tribe colonies, temporary sheds of migrant labourers and footpath dwellers. A family of 5 to 7 lives in a tiny hut or shed. Open defecation is their common practice. The women, mostly in big numbers are seen collecting water from the public taps. The people are always seen in groups – adults chit-chatting or doing some odd work like garbage segregation and children playing on roads.

Everyday crowds of people are seen in the wholesale markets without masks and social distancing. When food packets are distributed by volunteers, ‘stampede-like situations’ are witnessed. Similar scenario is seen in front of the ration shops. Of course people are in the queue but touching each other. When they are asked to maintain certain distance/gap between two persons, they are afraid that someone will come in between. Surprisingly, ‘intruding incidences’ have happened in many places. So the people are hesitant to leave space. Moreover, everybody is in a hurry to collect the ration and hence they are tensed. The people’s mindset and behaviour are never tuned to social distancing. In such a situation, how can the government expect the people, especially living in the vulnerable locations mentioned above, to maintain social distancing?

Till date neither the urban development/corporation authorities nor private NGOs/churches have come forward and offered buildings like schools, colleges, training centres and function halls owned by them to the vulnerable people during this critical period so that these people can learn to maintain social distancing and protect themselves from the dreaded virus. Is anyone listening?

(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)