Social distancing in the times of coronavirus pandemic

Social distancing in the times of coronavirus pandemic

By Bicram Rijal

We are in the middle of a coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with its effects reaching far deep and wide. While different measures are being thought about and implemented worldwide to reduce its spread and impact, social distancing has become a new catchphrase in the global vernacular. As public, we first repeatedly heard about the messages on the importance of frequent handwashing with soap and water, and now—after realizing that handwashing alone will not be just enough—social distancing or social isolation has become the recommended practice by public health experts and governments around the globe. In fact, social distancing is a bit of a misnomer given that in the current situation we are primarily implying the physical distance between people, rather than cutting off their social connections. 

Photo by Bicram Rijal

Social distancing is not a new phenomenon

Even though social distancing or social isolation is treated as a new norm or reality, it is nevertheless not new. In the countries like Nepal, social distancing or social isolation has been a part of cultural experience of marginalized population for so long. For example, during menstruating period, women in the Hindu households are prescribed to refrain from regular contact with adult men and elderly head women, and from some daily jobs like cooking and worshipping in fears that their menstruated bodies can cause ritual and cultural impurity. In the far west region of the country, menstruating women are still forced to spend nights in isolation in animal sheds or menstrual huts so that they don’t pollute the members of a household or a community with their physical contact. It is a traditional Hindu belief that treats menstrual blood as impurity and compels women to be distant and isolated from other members during their monthly cycle.    

The Dalits—so-called untouchables—are forced by “high-caste” communities to remain distant from physical touch with them based on the notion that the Dalits’ bodies are culturally impure to the bodies of “high-caste” Hindus. 

For Canada’s First Nations communities, social distancing or social isolation may mean and bring back the memories of the haunting experience of government-sponsored residential school system, which was in existence until 1996.

Students working at their desks in Brandon Indian Residential School, Brandon, Manitoba, 1946.  Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture. Such forceful social isolation was aimed at transforming the Indigenous cultural habits and ways of beings into the ones that European, Canadian and Christian ways of life had imagined. That was just in the name of assimilation and modernization. 

For these historically marginalized groups of people, social distancing is not a voluntary practice, but a social sanction imposed upon them by those who exercise power and authority. In this sense, the generic social distancing that we are talking about in relation to the emergent pandemic should not be taken for granted but be conceived as a political problem that forms a part of lived experiences of many marginalized and oppressed population. As such, it should serve as a reminder of present and past social exclusion and discrimination of vulnerable population across the globe. I further argue that we should challenge the universal notion of social distancing and pay heed to its diverse and culturally specific manifestations. 

Lasting effects of the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is casting its effects at unprecedented levels in different aspects of our everyday lives, including economy, education, jobs, businesses, mobilities, politics and governance. The widespread outbreaks mean that the strict measures are being put in place so that we abstain ourselves from corporeal experiences of touch. In a local Costco store in Burnaby, Canada, a female staff, who was standing and checking the customers’ receipts by the exit door, asked my wife to hold her long receipt straight up so that she could put a check mark. “Wasn’t it a bit weird that even with gloves and mask she did not touch my receipt?” my wife commented as soon as we exited the door. “Perhaps she did the right choice given that there is so much message out there to discourage physical contact,” I explained.  “May be,” she said, and we moved on. 

Shoppers are lining up at Costco store in Burnaby BC, Canada even before its doors are open on March 08, 2020. Pencil sketch rendering and photo by Bicram Rijal.

If this outbreak has the most dramatic attack on any sensory experience, it is undoubtedly on the domain of tactility. Whether it is in the moment of hugging, kissing, embracing or shaking hands, touch or physical contact plays a central role in our everyday human relationships and interactions. However, amidst the ongoing outbreaks, we are constantly reminded of how dangerous—even lethal—simply a touch or a handshake can become to our own bodies and those of others. In the context of this sensory discomfort brought about by the pandemic, we as anthropologists can look for cross-cultural references of societies where there are alternative forms of everyday sociality. For example, in rural Nepal, instead of handshaking or hugging, people say namaste or bow their heads to greet the relatives or elder members of society.     

With all these new measures put in place to restrict in-person interactions and tactile experience, what kinds of human sociality can we anticipate evolving? The simple answer is: it depends on how long the outbreaks are going to last. If the outbreaks and current public health measures are going to continue for months, it is very likely that the nature of our one-on-one interactions will undergo long-term dramatic transformations. That means we will perhaps maintain more physical distance than now between ourselves in public spaces like transit stations, shopping malls, grocery stores, recreation centers, etc. In particular, the psychic effect of this pandemic will likely last for the rest of their lives among millions of kids and children worldwide, reminding them the critical importance of not panicking at difficult times. I also think that this pandemic will bring about massive transformation in the ways we deal with our own bodies, particularly in relation to everyday sanitary and hygiene habits. Will there be more toilets with bidet sprayers attached to them in North American homes in future? Given that this pandemic reflects the toilet paper crisis, among others, I will not be surprised if that is going to be the case, but it is something that time will tell.      

Measures of social distancing: A case of Canada

In Canada’s British Columbia (BC), the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, reiterated the importance of social distancing measures while providing the update on COVID-19 on March 18, 2020. In urging the public to follow these measures, she drew on the notions of “civic duty” and “civic responsibility” and stated that “the legal orders are really measure of last resort.” She said, “…mostly we are asking people to take voluntary steps to help us in our community. And while they are voluntary, there is an expectation that “we will do our civic duty.”” Earlier the same day, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, had urged the public to stay home and maintain social distancing while addressing the nation. He had emphasized that social distancing would help slow the spread of the virus. The following day, he had more bad news to share, telling the public that the measures of closures and social distancing will likely continue to be put in place for weeks and months to come.  

With different provinces of the country having already gone into a state of emergency, the social distancing measures have become a part of legal orders forcing universities and schools, cafes and bars, theatres and entertainment venues, provincial and national parks, recreation and community centers to close until further notice or be able to offer only a limited services so that at least the distance of 2 meters is maintained between individuals. 

Empty Hastings Street in Burnaby, BC., Canada on March 24, 2020. Photo by Bicram Rijal

Just by seeing how things have so far unfolded during this pandemic, it is fair to say that coronavirus has brought to fore the new forms of governance and individual social practices. Across the globe, while the governments are urging their citizens to take on self-responsibility (whether in relation to proper sanitation and hygiene measures or self-isolation or physical distancing), the citizens are calling for governments’ transparency, clarity, accountability and urgency on their responses to the crisis. “Did we respond to the crisis a bit too slow?” “Could we have followed some stricter measures like shelter-in-place?” “Are there enough personal protective equipment for health workers?” “Are residents of the long-term care centers getting enough care?” “What are you doing to make sure that the health workers are protected?” are some of the frequent questions facing the province of British Columbia every day. While the provincial government is struggling to slow down the outbreaks, it is counting on its citizens to do their part too. On March 20, 2020, the provincial health minister, Adrian Dix, had said to the public, while reminding them of how critical the next two weeks were going to be, “It’s not just up to healthcare system, but up to everybody…to flatten the curve.” “We are all together in this fight,” he repeated what he had said the day before. “We need to be united,” the health officer urged before the minister. 

In case that individual citizens do not fulfil their civic duties or responsibilities on a voluntary basis, the legal orders allow implementation of laws, including through coercion if needed. The implementation of legal orders also means that those who do not follow them will become subject to legal sanctions, including fines and sentence times. And, that’s what the state of emergency or lockdown implies, among other things. 

In the context of a state of emergency in the province of B.C., things changed quite quickly. The provincial health officer’s call for “civic duty” from the public changed into an “order” when questions and concerns emerged that there were still some people and businesses that were not taking the message of social distancing seriously. “There is nothing voluntary here,” the minister warned before concluding, “Everybody needs to have 100% compliance.” In the national level, the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message became increasingly stricter as the days progressed in the past week. In a speech he gave out to the nation on March 23rd, he said “enough is enough” to those who had not yet followed the orders of physical distancing. “Social distancing, physical distancing is the single best way to keep the people around you safe,” he assured.

One of the many things that is striking to me as an anthropologist is how the rapidly changing governance and policy practices on the one hand and the individual people’s actions in response to them on the other are providing the context for new form of everyday citizenship. In a way, coronavirus outbreak is mediating the relationship—at times even troubling—between the state and its citizens, and between the fellow citizens. The emergent reality has engendered new form of social and political belonging, so to speak.  

However universal social distancing may sound, the challenges it faces are specific to economic, political and cultural contexts. One challenge that Dr. Henry had pointed out in the context of British Columbia is how to implement the measures in diverse settings, for example in big businesses vs small grocery stores. There are cultural contexts and complexities to consider as well to make sure that these measures are effective and inclusive at the same time. To address those challenges, the health minister Adrian Dix said, the province is constantly working toward making sure that the responses to the crisis are implemented in “culturally appropriate” ways, by including the voices of the First Nations and other communities.


Becoming humane is only way to fight the crisis

Amidst mostly negative consequences, there are a few things that I think this crisis can teach us as humans. I hope these difficult experiences will help us—individually and institutionally—better prepare for future crises. As this pandemic is testing our resilience to extreme, I think it has already taught us the importance of some crucial moral values of being empathetic, less wasteful, generous, kind and helpful. It is those values along with unity amongst us that can put an end to an adversity sooner rather than the very divides and selfishness that we possess. We can perhaps assess how well or poorly we did ourselves once we get past the crisis, but this is a time not to put blame on a country or ethnicity or a group of people. The blame game only invites more chaos and problems. 

The pandemic is a global crisis and our response to it requires globally coordinated yet locally heterogeneous measures and a sense of urgency. That means we should fight it both as a unified humanity and a diverse humanity. We should fight it within and beyond our national borders. We should fight it within and beyond the contexts of our religious, ethnic, racial and gender identities. We should fight it with and without our political beliefs. We should fight it for ourselves and for others at the same time. Perhaps, most of all, we should fight it as humans—nothing less nothing more. Being humane is only way to fight this crisis that we have never experienced before in our lives.


Bicram Rijal is a PhD. Candidate in Anthropology at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Follow him at:

Note: Because the coronavirus pandemic and the responses to it are rapidly evolving, some of the examples and details in this article may be outdated.