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Social Distancing and The Social Distance

Every time we go through an arduous period in our lives, it is instantly deemed to be a ‘crisis’. But when all of humanity suffers as a whole in a specific circumstance, one tends to gain some perspective on what a crisis truly can be. The world recently gained some perspective when it was hit by the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, declared by the United Nations to be the worst crisis since the Second War War.1

Among others advocated by the World Health Organisation and national health agencies of various countries of the world, one non-pharmaceutical precautionary measure stands out in particular: social distancing or ‘physical distancing’. Social distancing essentially means maintaining limited physical contact with other people. Every one of us has probably heard the sentence ‘Maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and the next person’ ad nauseam. However, experts now prefer to use the term ‘physical distancing’ to prevent inadvertently propagating social isolation, and because we live in an age where technology virtually shrinks the distance between us and our loved ones. 2 However, not everybody is quite as privileged as the rest of us to have access to such facilities.

While the coronavirus has directly affected millions of people globally, it has also thrown new hurdles into humanity’s path and exacerbated existing ones. Whether it’s the plight of the migrant labourers in India stranded with little to no wages and separated from their families and homes or the disproportionate death toll in people of colour in the US, the virus has brought to light certain socioeconomic disparities across the globe. (Note that the term ‘social distance’ has been used synonymously with economic disparities because most of them have a social basis, as is evident in world history.)

Crises in the past have been known to widen the ever-present chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The economically underprivileged in the world have been caught in an ugly vicious circle dubbed the “Pandemic-Inequality Feedback Loop’ by Max Fisher and Emma Bubola of the New York Times,3 that causes and compounds their inequality and the inequality itself has multiplied the spread of the virus. The rise in inequality at this time has created, or rather, aggravated the rise of health disparities all over the world, especially in countries where public healthcare is either poor or expensive. Private hospitals and healthcare centres in India, especially in worse-off cities and towns, have begun charging exorbitant fees for all treatments 4 owing largely to the deficit of beds and healthcare workers, thereby perpetuating a class divide in the healthcare system. It seems almost ironic, but also humbling that the same disease that has affected our neighbourhood grocer has also affected some of the world’s wealthiest, in ways that are so similar but also very different. On a base level, nobody is spared from the fear of contracting the virus, and every person who has been infected has to deal with the same respiratory problems and other physiological effects, not to mention being faced with the same paralysing terror at the very real prospect of death. Simultaneously, however, it is apparent that some have an advantage over others. Wealth isn’t a guarantee that one is safe from the effects of the pandemic, but it certainly helps.

At a time during which people are being advised to stay at home and maintain social distancing measures when in public areas, low-income groups seem to be affected the worst. The informal workforce of 450-million in India 5 who work as casual labourers, street vendors, and more, who rely on hourly or daily wages are suffering from an almost absolute lack of income. Many have lost their jobs and are already looking for new ones – a miserable prospect during these troubled times. Large sections of the poverty-stricken are unable to gain access to even basic resources like clean water supply, let alone disinfecting or precautionary products such as face masks and sanitisers. Since people tend to cluster by economic status, the risk of infection in these communities is multiplied. Economically polarised cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai have therefore seen an exponential acceleration in the spread of the virus. On the other hand, the economically middle and upper classes, while having their fair share of issues, have the advantage of access to stable housing and basic resources over the rest. Although job security is dubious at this time for all, most in this bracket have steady incomes. The truth is that even those who are living off their savings, no matter how minimal, seem to be in a better-off position than the absolute impoverished.

But the economically impoverished aren’t the only disadvantaged parties at this time – there exists a gender dimension to the effects of the pandemic. While men’s immune systems may be less equipped to fight the virus, as statistics show that more men than women have died due to the coronavirus – at double the rate in certain countries 6 – the odds are also stacked against women. Even in a pre-COVID-19 world, women faced extra obstacles particularly in areas having inadequate infrastructure. For instance, in areas that lack access to household water connections, residents are compelled to line up at community water taps and tankers; this duty is usually performed by the women in most households. When household water needs have swelled due to soaring summer temperatures and the need for frequent personal cleansing, women are spending more time in lines for water and are thereby more at risk for contracting the virus. With the continued presence of all family members at home, often with little or no income and under strict lockdown and subsequent restrictions, domestic abuse of women of all classes has shot up exponentially.7 While the efforts of non-profit and government organisations have not gone unnoticed, in these trying times, the magnitude of the problem seems to dwarf the efforts.

According to an estimate by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, over 12.2 crore people lost their jobs in India in April 2020 alone as a consequence of the pandemic; around 75% of this number were small traders and wage-labourers.8 The World Economic Outlook report published by the International Monetary Fund in April 2020 predicted that the outbreak of COVID-19 will severely impact economic growth across all nations, whether advanced economies, emerging nations, or low-income countries.9 It is also estimated by a team of World Bank economists that extreme poverty in the world will rise by about 40 to 60 million people; India alone could consist of 10 million of that number. Bearing these statistics in mind, it is likely that all the progress in reducing poverty since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 has been lost. ‘We will enter the U.N. Decade of Action with the same distance to travel on poverty reduction, but only ten years in which to do it.’10 If these estimates are accurate, the social distance will categorically continue to expand, and inclusive growth will become the world’s new mantra. CONCLUSION

‘When a health crisis hits all segments of society, it can set off a cycle in which declining economic status leads to rising rates of chronic illness. That, in turn, further depresses productivity and raises health care costs, leading to more poverty, which leads to more disease.’3 It is beyond doubt that the short-term repercussions of the pandemic will continue to enlarge the gulf between the economically advantaged and the rest of society. But it is also certain that humanity shall recover from this global crisis, as it always has in the past, forging through to create a new normalcy. It remains to be seen what the role and magnitude of social distance will be in the new normal of the coming years.

By Pooja Ravi

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.‘Social-Distancing-and-The-Social-Distance’)
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