Lectures

Against Social Distancing: A Call for Social Solidarity in this Time of Physical Distancing

This article is part of the series:

In this time of apocalyptic “shelter in place” orders, school closures with impromptu home-schooling, and toilet paper shortages, everyone is asked and admonished to practice “social distancing”.  By this, public health professionals mean people should stay home except for essential tasks, keep 6 feet distance from each other, wash hands frequently, and cover coughs.  These measures can slow the spread of COVID-19 and help keep our underfunded health system from collapsing

Yet, these calls are not really for “social distancing”, but rather “physical distancing” – as pointed out by a medical student in my newly-online class last week.  In fact, while society must take “physical distancing” extremely seriously, we need the opposite of “social distancing” to survive this pandemic. We need social solidarity in this time of physical distancing.

We need social solidarity for our mental health.  Some in our society are home alone, feeling lonely or depressed.  Some can’t be home with loved ones due to travel restrictions, border closures.  Some avoid home to protect loved ones at high risk. In this time of physical distancing, we need to practice alternative forms of connection. Perhaps that means using social media – or avoiding it. Perhaps that means sending letters, setting up virtual hangouts, or talking by phone. Perhaps that means sharing a kind word or smile with neighbors and strangers – from a distance.  

We need social solidarity to avoid stigmatization and division.  Despite the fact that China had more concerted, effective, early responses to COVID-19 than the U.S., some blame the virus on China and anyone perceived in any way to be related to the entire (diverse) continent of Asia. While leaders use language signaling racism and xenophobia, others perpetrate increasing numbers of hate crimes. Some politicians imply or state that we must protect ourselves from all of Europe and Mexico – despite the fact that the epidemic in the U.S. is more out-of-control, lacking testing kits and basic protective equipment. This illogic, in the midst of misinformation, stokes xenophobia while the U.S. ramps up violations of U.N. conventions and the basic human rights of immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. In this pandemic, we need to avoid division, come together, and learn to see ourselves and our health in relation to one another.  

We need social solidarity to protect frontline health professionals.  As one physician colleague told me this week, “at home with family, things feel fine. But in the hospital, shit is hitting the fan.” What scares many physicians and nurses is not so much the virus itself or even the severe respiratory syndrome it causes, but rather the lack of essential equipment – protective N95 masks, COVID-19 test kits, negative pressure rooms, ventilators. Clinicians and public health professionals are critical to how our society will weather this pandemic. In the words of another colleague, “I did not sign up to die because of a lack of Personal Protective Equipment!” Yet, the Trump administration forced the closure of critical epidemic response teams in the CDC, the National Security Council and the US Agency for International Development. And Trump’s 2021 budget released last month includes $3 billion further cuts to core federal agencies including global health response programs. This de-funding of basic public health in the U.S. risks fueling the flame of this pandemic, leading to numerous avoidable exposures, infections and deaths. In painful irony, the federal government gave ICE officers N95 protective masks as they raided immigrant communities the first day of the California lockdown, but does not give this basic protective equipment to frontline health workers we all need to save our lives. If we want to survive this and future pandemics, we must understand how critical our public systems are for everyone in our society. We must fund health and social services to have necessary staff, stuff, space and systems.

We need social solidarity to protect our neighbors and ourselves.  To slow the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus in a dangerously de-funded health system, we close schools, bars, gyms, farms, and more.  Most hope this will be temporary. Some small businesses have already shuttered completely and laid off all employees. Others have laid off front desk staff while continuing to pay administrators working from home. Some hourly workers, including those who provide us with food by harvesting fruits and vegetables or preparing and serving in restaurants, are now out of work and unable to buy enough food for themselves and their families. One migrant farmworker mother told me yesterday, “how can I pay rent for my family when I can’t work?” While we are urged – even ordered – to keep physical distance, some in our society are kept locked in detention facilities, prisons and jails in conditions dangerous for the spread of COVID-19. If we want to eat during and after this pandemic, we must support – and not raid, detain or deport – those who harvest, prepare, serve and deliver our food.  And while many of us are told to “stay home”, an unprecedented number of people in this country live houseless, with nowhere to “shelter in place”. While the Senate plans to stimulate the economy by sending money to some, those below the threshold for filing taxes – the working poor – are explicitly excluded. Those who need support most would receive nothing.  

COVID-19 is a wake-up call.  It is most dangerous for those advanced in age, those with chronic illnesses, and those in crowded living conditions. At the same time, for any of us to be healthy in a pandemic, we must make sure all are healthy. As a colleague said today, “the logic of this virus is not the same as the logic of our system.”  

If we learn anything right now, we must learn that we are all in this together.  We must stay connected. We must confront racism, xenophobia and division. We must fund and value our public health and social systems.  We must support those most marginalized. Stop raiding, detaining and deporting immigrant communities. Avoid causing chaos for those on whom our system relies – including those who provide us all with food. Instead of bailing out only banks and businesses without batting an eye, we must provide shelter, health care, financial support, and student debt forgiveness for all our neighbors, especially those who need it most.  The virus will not change its logic. We must change our system and the assumptions that reproduce it.


Seth M. Holmes, PhD, MD, University of California Berkeley and San Francisco.  A cultural anthropologist and physician, Holmes focuses on social and health inequities, the ways in which they are produced, justified and resisted, particularly in the contexts of transnational food systems, im/migration, health education and health care. He writes for peer reviewed journals in anthropology, immigration studies, food studies, public health and medicine as well as for popular media including Salon.com, the Huffington Post, NPR, PRI and Radio Bilingüe. His work, including the book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, has received multiple awards in anthropology, sociology, and geography, including the Margaret Mead Award and the Robert Textor and Family Prize. 


One Response to Against Social Distancing: A Call for Social Solidarity in this Time of Physical Distancing

  1. Wonderful pivot. I was onboard with “social distancing” because I perceived the choice of words to suggest the necessary distancing was not a separation of human interaction or contact, but a matter to practice in social environments, when socializing, and for societal needs inherent in the crisis. But that’s me, the social glass is half full. The top of your article caused me to realize that where I heard the term of art as socially embracing, to another’s (or even most) ears it may be defined and practiced as you suggest – a directive to disengage socially when implementing the distancing technique. “Physical distancing” is infinitely more descriptive, easier to understand and enact. I believe I’ll make a change, use the fresher term your student observed (and coined?) and see if catches on among my family and posse. You’ve authored a nice short piece, with a germane central point, and many accessory opinions to bring forth into broader awareness. I’m sorry it took me some time to get around to this. Backlog, of which you are familiar. I hope to see you soon on the other side of this. It’s been some time Seth! Carry on, hero. -H

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