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social distancing: absence of sociable approach or response to other people that is phobic rather than depressive, catatonic, or autistic aloneness.

Dictionary of Sexology Project: Main Index

Social distancing is the action of intentionally maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between one's self and other humans for the purpose of flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections and thereby mitigating the effect of hospital and intensive care unit beds not being available to those who may need them due to overwhelming of the medical system with more sick patients than there are resources to care for them.

SARS-CoV-2 or the 2019 Novel Coronavirus is a new to humans virus, hense novel with an exponential growth rate potential because zero humans are immune to it. Every time a potential infection is stopped by social distancing the doubling of the infection rate slows. If it can be slowed enough it may be that the number of COVID-19 cases will spread out over time enough to not have such devastating effects as triaging of medical resources in developed areas of the world.

Social distancing has traditionally been a technical term refering to many different methods of keeping people apart. Until very recently -- early March, 2020 -- the stay six feet a way from other people rule was not a particularly emphasized part of social distancing.

Documents on managing the spread of infectious disease tend to provide lists of key components of social distancing that look something like this:

  • Isolation of cases
  • Quarantine of contacts
  • Stay-at-home recommendations

There is significant breakdown of those categories, of course, but it is an umbrella term, not a specific recommendation. The term is both an accurate description of what is being recommended and surprisingly slippery. The CDC report on recommendations for managing flu outbreaks published in 2017 (link) included things like telecommuting, school closure and cancelling mass gatherings, but when it came down to listing their specific recommendations they gave two examples: maintaining at least 3 feet between individuals, and voluntary home isolation of those infected.

The current recommendations for social distancing remain much the same as the ones for influenza, which unfortunately means that most of them are not tailored for COVID-19. Specifically, the six-foot recommendation seems to be based entirely on studies of influenza (like this one) that document a reduction of infection as distance increases; it is not clear that this is appropriate to the coronavirus specifically, and it is absolutely not okay that people are treating at as a golden rule in distancing beds in hospitals and homeless shelters. However, as it is an estimate of the furthest distance that droplets from coughs and sneezes will usually travel, and because it is easy to remember, it is a useful Schelling point.

The messy terminology leads to possible misunderstandings and manipulations. Social distancing recommendations from various reports include things like liberal leave policies, cancelling school, avoiding groups of 10 or more, and, of course, maintaining 6 feet or 2 meters from other people. The government and the media are going to focus on easy, free, and simple to communicate solutions like keeping your distance from your friends; this is only one aspect of social distancing, and was, until this month, a comparatively minor one.

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