COVID-19 and Social Distancing: A Sociological Concept

By: Associate Professor Dr Noor Azlan Mohd Noor

The Coronavirus pandamic, also known as COVID-19, began in December 31, 2019 where a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause was reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China, attracting great attention nationally and worldwide. This was then followed by the Wuhan public health authorities which took further action to shut down the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where wild and live animals were sold, due to its suspected link with the outbreak. This unprecedented outbreak had led, on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare COVID-19 to be Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and declared it as an epidemic (De Vos, 2020; Jiang et. al., 2020). The main clinical manifestations of COVID-19 observed were fever, cough and dyspnea, evident among most COVID-19 patients who had fever and respiratory symptoms. It was reported that although several efforts were underway to develop COVID-19 vaccines, WHO had estimated that it would take 18 months for the vaccines to be made available. The only treatment offered and administered today is mainly supportive and symptomatic. Thus, for protective measures of viral control, people are advised to wash their hands regularly, and wear contact isolation gear such as masks, gowns, and gloves (Jiang et. al., 2020:1547-48). 

In reality, we are living in a world surrounded by trillions of microbes. Covid-19 is one of the deadly microbes or virus with high level of infectivity. Once contracted with this deadly virus, ones’ lives will be at stake. On this account, many countries across the globe have adopted and enforced social distancing by imposing either partial-lockdown  or full-lockdown policy in their respective countries. This social distancing approach is similar to Georg Simmel’s sociological concept of space. In Georg Simmel’s analysis, he offers important insights on the social construction of space. He focuses on five (5) basic properties of space, namely (David, 2004:1-4); 

  1. Exclusivity or uniqueness space: Social space varies by the configuration and exclusivity of the groups occupying it.
  2. Space may be subdivided for social purposes and framed in boundaries. In this case, the social boundary provides special configuration of experience and interaction. It provides a new norm of interaction among individuals such as one-metre apart policy during interaction, reinforcing social order through MCO (Movement Control Order) within limited geographical boundaries and highlighting SOPs (standard Operating Procedures) for relations across boundaries.
  3. The localizing or fixing of social interaction in space also influences social formations. The “Stay-home, Stay-safe” slogans during COVID-19 reinforces the “hang-out” limitation but at the same time, encouraging “getting-together” instead, through series of more quality time social interaction among the family members at home. Also, internet communication technologies allow concrete spatial settings to be less important in many social transactions today. 
  4. All social interactions could be characterized by their relative degree of proximity and distance among individuals and groups. These dimensions were central to Simmel’s space concept. With increasing physical proximity, “personal space” must be managed, and may lead to emotional extremes. With the concentration of people in a gazetted location or limited geographical location due to MCOs, individuals may become “overstimulated” from the frequency and pace of interactions. Thus, the individuals involved may adopt a stance of social distance from others by taking on a reserved and detached concern attitude. 
  5. The fifth dimension of space involves special relations surround the changing of locations. Here, Simmel emphasised “strangeness” as an element of social interaction that all social relationships hold to some degree. The stranger is a case in which “spatial relations are not only determining conditions of relationships among people, but are also symbolic of those relationships”. 

The foregoing discussion highlighted several issues relating to COVID-19 and social distancing. The social distancing measures through lockdown approach by many governments across the globe have produced various spatial effects to the people. This includes the space-territorial control such as zoning concept, the organisation of space at the level of political and economic institutions, potential effects on travel behaviour among individuals, and finally the community’s welfare, health and well-being in relation to COVID-19 pandemic. 

References

David, Fearon (2004). “Georg Simmel: The sociology of space”. Available at: https://escholarship.org/content/qt7s73860q/qt7s73860q.pdf?t=o0wu7k  Accessed 15 July 2020. 

De Vos, Jonas (2020). “The effect of COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing on travel behavior”. Transpotation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives Vol. 5 May 2020, 100121. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590198220300324  Accessed 13 June 2020 . 

Jiang, F. and Deng, L. et. al. (2020). “Review of the clinical characteristics of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)”. Journal of General Internal Medicine 35: 1545-1549. Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11606-020-05762-w.pdf  Accessed 14 June 2020. 

Dr Noor Azlan Mohd Noor is an associate professor at Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, IIUM

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