Social distancing: The new normal

Published on Mar 30, 2020 12:03 AM IST
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ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

At a pharmacist in a south Delhi colony, customers were standing outside the store with a one-metre distance between each other on Sunday. One of the customers handed over his debit card to the pharmacist but wasn’t allowed to enter the PIN himself. He had to announce the four-digit code to the pharmacist at the counter who made the transaction and handed over the card with his gloved hands.

Another customer wanted the pharmacist to speak to the customer’s employer because he could not pronounce the name of the medicine he wanted. “Please ask your employer to message us. We cannot speak on your mobile phone with him,” the pharmacist said. The man appeared puzzled and disappointed because he couldn’t get the medicine his employer needed. Other customers explained to him that sharing phones was not possible anymore because of the spread of Covid-19. There are several such instances of how daily life has changed —one of them being grocers throwing bags of grains at customers to ensure the least contact.

We will not be the same again after the lockdown lifts. Not only because of the devastating economic impact of the lockdown but because SARS-CoV-2 infections will continue to affect us. The new normal for several months will be to maintain social distance in everything we do, maintain personal hygiene and get used to relatively slow life in cities.

Sociologists expect better hygiene practices to develop among the population, but some also worry whether these practices can be carried out in urban slums or even rural areas with little access to water or soap.

The first and most positive behavioural change is likely to be the maintenance of cough hygiene as people gradually realise that coughing into the crook of their arm is good for them and others.

“In the west, spitting was condemned on medical grounds because this practice was linked to TB. In most media announcements about this disease in India, there is rarely any mention of the connection between TB and spitting. The emphasis is rather on getting to the hospital quick once symptoms appear. That is very important, no doubt, but what about the prevention of TB in the first place? To avoid being infected by Covid-19 from a casual interaction, people have started wearing masks and that, by itself, will act as a barrier against spitting,” Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist, said.

“Rarely have we been mindful of others when we sneeze or cough; that might change. Now we will probably begin to realise that how others behave would keep us healthy. This might lay the groundwork, or the foundation, of an enduring policy for public health where everybody matters and no wall is high or thick enough to protect classes and people from one another,” he added.

However. the question is how such behaviour would be practised in slums. About 24% of the urban population in India lives in slums, according to a World Bank estimate. “The government should have made a specific policy for densely populated areas by now because the infection will definitely spread there. How the future unfolds for them will depend on those policies,” Dr T Jacob John, veteran virologist, emeritus professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, said.

Amita Baviskar, a sociologist who specialises in social inequality and environment, said, “Everything depends on who is this ‘we’ we are talking about. A middle class ‘we’ has access to water, exercises the choice of who they wish to socialize with, lives in a way you can maintain distance with people, has the flexibility of how he or she wants to work. The middle class is already secluding themselves and may continue to do so by maintaining a physical distance. But this middle class is also extremely dependent on plumbers, electricians and domestic workers. These needs will dilute the extent to which disease can be controlled. I am concerned about the people who are forced to go out for work and live in dense settlements. How can they keep infection away? There is a very strong economic and social divide. We are in for a long and hard haul.”

There is scientific evidence to back the need to continue social distancing. A study by Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, University of Oxford & Nuffield College, the UK, which is yet to be printed, has said the demographic and social structure of Italy has made it vulnerable to the onslaught of Covid-19. Italy has the second-highest population of old persons with 23.3% of its population over the age of 65, compared to 12% in China. Italy is also characterised by extensive intergenerational contact, with most children living with parents and grandparents. Children travel for work to cities and come back home to live with elders.

A 2007 study reviewing the public health interventions of the 1918 influenza pandemic found cities in which multiple interventions like closing of schools and theatres, and social distancing were implemented at an early phase of the epidemic had peak death rates nearly 50% lower than those that did not.

“A physical distance needs to be maintained for a long time that cannot be specified, but emotional proximity can be continued,” John added.

“Humanity is no stranger to this kind of epidemic but every age expects its relationship with nature and disease will be different. I find that somewhat arrogant. It’s very difficult to say how we will behave socially,” Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at Delhi School of Economics, said.

The health ministry has launched a psycho-social-behavioural helpline on Sunday which has a toll-free number—08046110007 and is supposed to address people’s mental health concerns.

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