A Wrong Message for the Pandemic

Public health messages addressed to the general population should be clear and unambiguous. This is particularly important in times of a pandemic like that caused by the coronavirus. Millions of lives are at stake. One of the messages, “social distancing,” widely used by public health authorities during the present pandemic, exemplifies this shortcoming. It should be replaced by “physical distancing.”

“Language that is unclear –or worse, that conveys inadvertent and counterproductive meanings—undermines public health discourse. This is as true in public health as anywhere; successful behavior-change efforts, like those crucial to defeating covid-19, depend in part on accurate, compelling language,” wrote Joanne Silberner and Howard Frumkin in The British Medical Journal.

The imposed isolation has affected people of all ages. One of the most serious effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been on people’s mental health. Children have increased sadness and depression. They also have difficulties with concentration and attention and avoid activities and games that they enjoyed in the past, particularly when they are unable to join their friends.

Many people have experienced symptoms of anxiety, fear, and depression that have even led some to hurt themselves and others. In many countries, there has been an increase in incidents of domestic violence. The seriousness of the situation is aggravated when people are unable to work or to find paying jobs of any kind. For many low-income adults, the threat of eviction and homelessness is a heavy burden.

Elderly people are more prone to get sick with the coronavirus both as a result of having a weaker immune system and underlying health conditions. Because elderly people often depend on younger family members for their daily needs, isolation measures can critically damage a family support system. Those elderly with physical or mental disabilities need increased attention and care.

In these situations, asking people to do “social distancing” is an ambiguous message that can be misinterpreted. What is needed is more intense social connection, albeit done by telephone or through social media. In this regard, the government through its public health authorities should provide specific recommendations for more effective social connectivity. Increasingly, public health experts are calling for people to do “interpersonal physical distancing” or, in brief, “physical distancing” to avoid becoming infected by the virus.

Public health experts are alerting that measures such as testing and contact tracing are losing effectiveness given the speed of transmission of the pandemic. It is now particularly necessary to change the words “social distancing” for “physical distancing” and insist on the importance of increasing social connection among people to alleviate the mental health effects of the pandemic, and prevent the transmission of the infection.

Being human means staying connected. I am reminded of the words of John Berryman in his poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,

“We are on each other’s hands who care”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”