Social or Physical?

Asish Kundu

Are the two words synonymous? Definitely not. After the Corona epidemic all the official notifications have been speaking of social distancing. Not only in our country but elsewhere too.

What does social distancing mean? Avoiding one another. To become a prisoner in your own abode. Can a society survive in such a situation? Will not the very foundations of the society breakdown?

Maintaining physical distancing mean keeping a safe distance so that disease does not spread. You can still remain social after maintaining the safety rules. Of late WHO (20th March to be exact) has also changed its terminology from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.” The reason they have cited is that social distancing creates mental pressures on people. Many become mentally ill.

At a daily news conference on March 20, officials of WHO said, while maintaining a physical distance was “absolutely essential” amid the global pandemic, “it does not mean that we have to socially disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.”

“Social distancing makes it sound like people should stop communicating with one another, while instead we should be preserving as much community as we can even while we keep our physical distance from one another,” said Jeremy Freese, professor of sociology at Stanford University in the United States.

A situation of panic has emerged as a result of social distancing. People are not helping one another in times of crisis. There are quite a few instances of people dying, but no relatives and neighbours have come forward to help cremate the body.

But we have a glorious history of another tradition.

In 1869 there was an outbreak of malaria epidemic in Burdwan district. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar went straight to Burdwan, put up in a rented house and started a clinic to treat the patients. He treated all patients, rich and poor, with Quinine. He saved a lot of lives by not maintaining a social distance.

In 1898 the notorious plague epidemic in Bengal created panic similar to what we are seeing today. At this juncture Swami Vivekananda published a manifesto on Plague. In 1899 Sister Nivedita and Swami Swadananda formed a team to fight against plague, and toured the most affected areas, treated the patients and started a clean- up drive in the slums. We must remember that it was Bubonic Plague and its mode of transmission was exactly like today’s Corona.

In this epidemic what we see is a lack of compassion. Thus, migrant workers have no way to return home but by walking unimaginable distances going hungry for days. Let’s not discuss what the government is doing. Let’s ponder what we, the common people are doing. I know of a very aged couple living in Salt Lake, who when in need of some essential medicines requested the police to get it for them. The police did help them out. But the point is, either they did not approach their neighbours or the neighbours refused to comply. Social distancing has created an utter lack of compassion.

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Apr 28, 2020

Dr. Asish Kundu

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