Guest Opinion: Why the words social distancing are wrong

  • by Jesus Guillen
  • Wednesday April 1, 2020
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Jesus Guillen. Photo: Courtesy Jesus Guillen
Jesus Guillen. Photo: Courtesy Jesus Guillen

From the first time I heard the words social distancing I felt a headache. I knew something was not right. But the words kept flowing down the river, and people kept accepting those 16 letters as the bible of reality.

Social distancing has become like a monster that keeps eating the spirit of the community, making it doubtful, afraid, and scared.

Yes, there is the reality of not knowing much yet about COVID-19 (the illness caused by the novel coronavirus). There is a constant picture of death on television and a hammer of information about this pandemic every five minutes. It is so much so that it has been recommended to check the news only once or twice a day.

The words, instead of social distancing, should be physical distancing. We have to rethink the concept and be socially closer than ever — from a distance. We have to allow the rain of hope to go deep into our consciousness and subconscious mind.

Once upon a time, being social meant being together physically with someone or in groups, but that seems like it was a long time ago. Our existence kept walking through history, and man created many ways to communicate; from smoke signals to the telegraph to the telephone, and then, social media came to be a reality thanks to the internet. Ah, and not too long ago, cellphones became almost an extension of our hands.

It seems the epidemiologists and public health officials, along with many others in government, agencies, and organizations, are ignorant that revolutions have been created through social media. We can start or kill careers in music and art, and the birth of reality stars is an everyday thing. It is not just a "fake" thing to have 5,000 friends on a Facebook page. It is true that there are lonely people who don't go out to the streets but have many followers on Instagram or Twitter but for many of us, besides having a healthy personal social life, we also have a very active social media life.

Many of us had been helping people through the internet in various ways, especially approaching those who are very isolated and lonely; 70% of new relationships, for many years, have started online. We fall in love; by pictures and words, we stay in touch; we talk to people we might never meet in person, or perhaps we met a good while ago; and reencounter friends even from kindergarten. We maintain these relationships with likes, hearts, emoji, video chatting, and much more. So, yes, we are social, even if we are very far away.

Let's talk about what society means: the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. Social media has created communities of all types. Where, in the past you felt that you were alone in what makes you unique in the perception of the world, now you can see that your likes, turn-ons, or turn-offs are a lot more common than you think. You can feel supported. We can express ourselves with pictures, art, selfies (the old self-portraits); we have webinars — seminars that can be free to learn about lots of subjects, or you can pay for online universities.

When public health officials wrote these words — social distancing — they didn't think about the power of them and how much these words can have a negative impact in our community. Once again, the correct words should be physical distancing. In this time of crisis we need to be socially closer than ever, if only virtually for now. We need to find more alternative ways to communicate and be in touch (forgive the pun, not touching right now, I know), and to socialize.

By now, some of us have many concerns about the words social distancing because they do not emphasize the power of community and we need this power more than ever. Even though the government and public health departments are the source of the term in its new incarnation, it does not mean the words are right. In this case, they are very wrong.

"I would argue that what we are doing right now is physical distancing, not social distancing," said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), during a recent COVID-19 tele-town hall with Boston University School of Public Health professor and epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea. "We are creating physical distance between us to limit the spread of the virus. But we should be doing that in the same breath as we are maintaining our social connections and sense of community and common sense of purpose."

The World Health Organization is officially advocating against the phrase "social distancing" and is now recommending the phrase "physical distancing," according to media reports in the Washington Post and other outlets.

In the last webinar from the CA LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network, Dr. Philip Peters from the Center of Infectious Diseases kept using the words physical distancing, and he emphasized the fact of staying socially close to each other. All that I can ask is for all of us to please rethink the concept, be kind, find ways to keep supporting each other, and don't allow your fear to make you act hostile.

As one of the HIV long-term survivors, we are encountering another pandemic on top of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We are all in this together. We need each other, without a doubt.

#rethinktheconcept #physicaldistancing #sociallycloserthanever

Jesus Guillen is chair of the San Francisco HIV and Aging workgroup.