Dissecting physical vs social distancing

As a doctor who has devoted my career to public health, I know the intended meaning of “social distancing” as a strategy to reduce transmission of the COVID 19 virus until vaccines and improved treatments are available. But the term “social distancing” mis-states what we are trying to accomplish to help us exit from this continuing crisis. Physical, not social distancing is essential to prevent transmission of the virus. And ironically we need to couple that with “social connectivity” the opposite of “social distancing."

Humans are social animals and we have an emotional need to interact with each other. Right now, despite the public health necessity of physical distancing, there are serious mental and physical health consequences caused by isolating-in-place. At the macro level, it is clear that prolonged social isolation affects lifespan. A recent meta-analysis of studies involving 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, found that those with good social relationships have a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival compared to those who were socially isolated.

I wrote in The Hill in 2018 about the health impacts of isolation and that meaningful, face-to-face interactions decrease loneliness. Those with active social lives generally report better health. Strong social affiliations — being part of a religious group, hobbyist circle or exercise group —all have positive effects. Doctors in the UK even make “social prescriptions,” specifying patients take part in structured social activity to fight loneliness.