One thing that’s been bothering me from the start of this virus outbreak is the use of the term “social distancing.” Obviously, its widespread use has worked pretty well. People are definitely learning to keep their distance from one another, students on Spring Break in Florida being a notable and regrettable exception.
But I’m concerned about the word “social” becoming associated with something as negative as a pandemic. I understand why the word is used: the health professionals are concerned with our behavior in social situations. But what we’re really talking about is the simple act of keeping physical space between us. So why not use the term “physical distancing” and leave “social” with its original pleasant connotation?
In fact, I think while we are encouraging people to keep physical space between them, we should also be encouraging folks to fill that space with social solidarity.
What the post-pandemic world will look like will depend, to a great extent, on how well we can maintain our innate nature as social beings during the crisis. Will we come out of this with an expanded sense of “everyone for themselves” or will we more fully embrace a sense of common cause?
It’s an important question. The pandemic will place today’s rampant inequality — economic and political — in stark relief. We’ve already seen this. Asked at a press conference about the fairness of wealthy, well-connected people getting coronavirus tests while the rest of us get nothing but anxiety attacks, Trump said, “Perhaps that’s the story of life. That does happen…” (He could have said, “That’s the story of my life.” In fact, I would bet that he was about to say just that and caught himself just in time.)
There is a distinct possibility that the pandemic will make our inequalities so obvious, shake the foundations of our society so profoundly, that addressing the inequality problem in its wake may very well seem like a necessity to many people. (Hint: it is a necessity. Today.) When we are able finally to put aside physical distancing, we’ll be called to act — vigorously — with social solidarity.