Social distancing: How to do it right

By Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Fri 27 Mar 2020, 10:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2020, 5:29 PM

Ninu Hyder's friends call her 'the mall hopper'. A self-confessed outdoor girl, who loves hanging out - especially at malls - the mum-of-two has found the recent need to practise social distancing difficult, to say the least. For one, it's ramped up the amount of engagement required of her at home - both in terms of "constantly cooking" and in terms of being 'on call' for everyone throughout the day. "I suddenly realise how essential me-time is for our sanity," she says. "Either my husband wants to discuss something, or my kids want to eat or play; even if they're watching TV, they want me around. It's been almost relentless."
The Indian expat is not alone in her grappling of this new normal. Up until earlier this year, the phrase 'social distancing' was an unfamiliar concept and would likely have earned one a quizzical look. Not anymore. Today, the term has been vaulted into the social consciousness of millions of people, thanks almost single-handedly to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The public health practice, as we know, is a necessary measure, meant to prevent the sick from coming into close contact with others in order to reduce the chances of disease transmission. "The main goal is to slow down the outbreak and reduce the chance of infection among high-risk populations, which will, in turn, reduce the burden on healthcare systems and workers," explains Roula El Mouallem, who works as a Mobile Implementation Officer for Infection Prevention and Control with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Middle East.
Detailing why it has become such a buzzword right now, Roula says, "Lessons learned throughout history, including those we learned from the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, indicate that these measures work. A 2007 PAN-study found that cities that deployed multiple interventions at an early phase of the pandemic - such as closing schools and banning public gatherings - had significantly lower death rates." Because our understanding of the virus causing the COVID-19 disease and of the disease itself is still evolving, such precautions are a key step in helping prevent the virus's spread.
Across the board
Social distancing as a norm has come with its fair share of pros and cons. One such consequence is the spike in the number of people working from home. While many consider it a welcome option, the flexibility does come with its drawbacks. Mohamed Yaseen works in the telecommunication industry and has been working from home for almost a week. While he's thankful for modern technology that allows them to remotely access their workstations, he admits the switch in routine has been rather hard - from a communal perspective. "There are lots of distractions and the technology is not as fast and efficient as at the office. The thing I miss the most, however, is my interaction with colleagues. I quite enjoyed meeting them and catching up with them on a daily basis. That is the only downside, if you ask me."
Dubai-based psychologist Dr Vassiliki Simoglou agrees that social distancing affects the community across the board, but notes there are some who may be particularly vulnerable at this time - such as individuals suffering or recovering from any form of depression, but also agoraphobic individuals or individuals with naturally avoidant tendencies.
Emotional health is key
Indeed, the largest impact of social distancing has definitely been on mental health. "The need to belong or need for affiliation is a fundamental aspect of being human," says Dr Sarah Rasmi, founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre. "Psychologists often look at it from an evolutionary perspective. We need bonds with other people in order to survive. For example, being able to create and maintain emotional bonds with other people enables us to look after children, take care of elderly and other vulnerable people, work together, protect one another, divide labour and provide emotional support during times of crises. Belonging to a social group is usually a fundamental aspect of our social identity."
The challenge right now, however, is that we are not able to connect in the same physical space as other people, if we are practising social distancing. The implication of this is that many may begin to feel disconnected and lonely, thus impacting well-being. Sarah says they recommend that people keep their regular social commitments by taking them to the digital environment. "If you have a best friend with whom you catch up for a weekly coffee, keep that appointment over the phone or through a video conferencing platform," she says.
This is a time when maintaining good emotional health is essential. "News about the COVID-19 situation is really dominating the public discourse at the moment and people are being consumed by headlines," says Sarah. "Wherever you turn, you hear people talking, sharing information and giving opinions about it. The more we hear about it, talk about it and think about it, the bigger it seems, and the more likely we are to trigger a cognitive bias called catastrophising. This is where we anticipate the worst-case scenario, overestimate how likely that scenario is to happen, and underestimate our ability to cope with it."
To tackle this, she recommends trying to limit our consumption of excess news and views on social media. "Have a small segment of the day, preferably in the morning, that you dedicate to catching up on the major headlines. That may mean drawing boundaries in your social media groups."
Keeping up with what's happening is important, but it is just as important to manage our worries. Since social distancing looks set to stay for a while, it is in our best interests to ensure we take all the steps necessary to preserve our mental, social and emotional well-being.

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