Why The WHO Is Now Using The Phrase “Physical Distancing” Instead Of “Social Distancing”

Staying connected to friends and family is vital. Luckily there are plenty of video calling apps, or go old school and pick up the phone. fizkes/Shutterstock

Katy Pallister 23 Mar 2020, 14:37

During the World Health Organization’s (WHO) press briefing last Friday (March 20), the phrase “social distancing” was used sparsely, but for good reason. To better highlight the need to physically separate yourself from others, but still remain socially connected, the WHO is now advocating the phrase “physical distancing.”

“We're changing to say physical distance and that's on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” Dr Maria Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist said in the press briefing. “So find ways to do that, find ways through the Internet and through different social media to remain connected because your mental health going through this is just as important as your physical health.”

Maintaining a physical distance between yourself and others plays a crucial part in helping to prevent the spread of the virus; as the coronavirus is spread from person to person when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.

Advice differs from country to country on what the “safe distance” to practice is. In Australia, the government is recommending people stay 1.5 meters away from each other; in the UK, Public Health England recommends that you should stay at least 2 meters away from others; the WHO recommends that you keep at least 1 meter between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing; and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention simply says that you should put distance between yourself and other people.

Wes Mountain/ The Conversation. CC By-ND 4.0

Despite these slight discrepancies, the overwhelming general idea is to not get close. In fact, our knowledge of influenza is partly helping to draw these estimates. As the flu virus is also spread via droplets, studies that map how far these infectious droplets travel can help to inform physical distancing advice, until similar research is done for the coronavirus.

Whilst the WHO stressed that keeping the physical distance from people is absolutely essential, “it doesn't mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family,” Dr Kerkhove said. “Technology right now has advanced so greatly that we can keep connected in many ways without actually physically being in the same room or physically being in the same space with people.”

The WHO’s recommendation to use the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing has been echoed by others.

“'Social distancing' was the wrong term to begin with,” Jamil Zaki, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, explained in a Q and A. “We should think of this time as “physical distancing” to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart. In fact, I encourage all of us to practice 'distant socializing.'”

As well as continuing to follow the guidelines on physical distancing, other preventative measures, such as washing hands thoroughly, covering coughs and sneezes, and refraining from touching your eyes, nose and mouth, should still be adhered to. If you experience a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention and follow the guidelines to self-isolate.

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