The COVID-19 Pandemic and A New Sociology of Social Distancing

An otherwise socially unacceptable and culturally sensitive phenomenon like social distancing has become a buzzword in everyday discourse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Indian tradition, the practice of reasonable closeness and acceptable physical proximity is valued as against the idea of isolation and social distancing. The upsurge in COVID-19 cases and consequent prescriptions for social distancing have pointed to an interesting and unnoticed sociological consequence of the pandemic alongside its impact on the economy and livelihood.

With all its symbolism and practical implications, the practice of “maintaining at least six feet distance in social interactions” has been the single most effective non-pharmaceutical intervention to combat the recent worldwide upsurge of the hitherto unprecedented pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19. March 2020 saw not only the emergence of the phrase “social distancing” to denote this idea, but also witnessed the way it changed all the sociopolitical discourses of the day, impacting the practices and habits of our everyday interactions and codes of conduct. Social distancing as “an idea” and as “a code” in the case of social interactions is, in some sense, novel in a country that values closeness and intimacy, discouraging formality and distance in interpersonal relations. The dialectic between the “need of the hour” and “the demand of the traditional norm” attracts the sociologists to rethink various facets of “distance.”

The concept of social distance has diverse usages. Often, it is used to mean objective (visible and measurable) class differences. The differences manifested as a result of one’s position in the class hierarchy, including the differences in the life situations, are analytically used to show social distance between two classes. French thinker Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) used the concept of social distance in this sense (Poole 1927). German social scientist Georg Simmel (1858–1919), on the other hand, saw distance as a function of closeness and remoteness. Distance, in this formulation, interestingly, is neither closeness nor remoteness; it is a place having certain features, in between the two poles of the continuum. The inherent tensions of the position of this place make the idea of distance theoretically multilayered and, hence, fascinating. Sometimes, the concept of social distance is used to denote what American sociologist Robert Ezra Park (1864–1944) has observed as the “degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterise personal and social relations generally” (Park 1924: 339).  The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought another connotation of social distance—conscious spatial distance—to the fore. Not only in India but throughout the world, this social distance is being sought for. But for the first time, perhaps in the history of Indian civilisation, social distance in the sense of spatial or physical distance between two individuals is hoped for, after this outbreak. Isolation, against the preference for living together, is being socially appreciated. Social distance, unlike its common usage in social sciences, here, does not mean objective or subjective social differences. Now, it is all about “maintaining at least 6 ft distance in social interactions.”

The Dynamics of Distance

The distance being discussed is not simply spatial or geographical. It becomes culturally constructed and socially meaningful. One of the leading British social theorists Anthony Giddens (2009) has informed us of the norms which people of different parts of the world usually follow during their interactions with others in public domains. For example, he observes, in Western culture, people usually maintain a distance of at least three feet when they talk or interact face to face with others. Similarly, in the Middle East, people often do not hesitate to stand closer. In India, particularly in the rural areas, people love physical proximity. Although in some tribal communities of our country, spatial distance is customarily maintained in social interactions between some specific social relations (like between the elder brother and the widow of the younger brother). But as a practice, Indians rarely follow the norm of social distancing. The recent outbreak has been introducing, in this sense, a new norm, incompatible with our existing cultural ethos. We usually prefer to invite people to come closer, as a symbol of intimacy and avoid spatial distance and isolation. So, distance is not merely geographical, it acquires diverse connotations in different cultural contexts and interactive situations. This process is inherently dynamic and culture specific.

Distance is symbolic. The emergence of distance as a cultural category also involves gender issues. For example, the girls always prefer to maintain distance, unlike their male counterparts, as a matter of coping strategy, when they present themselves in a male-dominated public domain. Before going deeper into the gender dimensions of social distancing, we introduce an interesting study by Edward T Hall. Hall (1969) has classified the average distance norms maintained during any kind of social interactions as follows:

  • Intimate distance: Six to 18 inches distance is maintained between two interacting individuals. This is not the usual case, as the name suggests. Only very intimate ones, particularly, spouses or lovers are allowed to come this close. 
  • Personal distance: In the case of personal distance, one foot to a maximum of four feet distance is consciously maintained by the interacting parties to avoid bodily discomfort and embarrassment caused by the sense of closeness.
  • Social distance: In the case of social distance, four to 12 feet distance is maintained between two interacting individuals. Hall (1969: 121) writes “[i]mpersonal business occurs at this distance.” For obvious reasons, this category is meant for the people who are less intimate and more formal.
  • Public distance: Here, the distance between the interacting parties exceeds 12 feet. Hall (1969: 125) observes that in American culture “[t]he usual public distance is not restricted to public figures but can be used by anyone on public occasions.”

Figure 1: Proxemics of Distance
  Source: Interpretation of Hall (1969).

The Cultural Construction of Distance

The proxemics or the study of the cultural dynamics of the geographical space puts the individual at its core and analyses how the cultural practices and conventions become crucial in this space in the public domains. The individual builds up imaginary circles or boundaries around their body, and allows different people to intrude in those circles on the basis of their relation with those people (see Figure 1 showing various invisible circles or boundaries marking the distance sought for in social interactions by the individuals). In this cultural construction of distance, our biological “body” is placed at the core. Social theorists analyse this sociology of the body pointing out the fact that the biological entity, known as the human body, is endowed with different socially constructed meanings. For example, our right hand does not bear the same meaning as our left hand. So, to many Indians, offering something with the left hand is objectionable. By the same logic, touching one’s feet and touching one’s face reflect two different intentions, though both are otherwise parts of a biological entity, known as the human body. The cultural significance of these two body parts vary widely. 

This cultural construction of the body has gender dimensions too. Not only in India, but throughout the world, sociologists have observed visible differences in the body movements, walking styles and gestures between the sexes. Girls place themselves differently in social interactions and are more calculative in allowing someone in what is known as intimate distance, which increases the probability of body contact. Girls are more conscious of their physical entity, more sensitive in maintaining distance and more alert of the intrusions to their comfort zone (intimate distance as has been termed). Boys are visibly indifferent and less rigid in this regard. 

The issue of social distancing can be analysed with the help of two concepts—individuality and vulnerability. Both concepts have resumed their significance in the ongoing crisis that emerged from the COVID-19-caused pandemic. Let us first discuss the issue of social distancing in light of individuality or, to put it simply, self-dignity. Individuality here is the function of the rights our body enjoys and the respect it demands. For obvious reasons, girls in a patriarchal culture feel threatened more in male-centric public domains that involve more than one person. They are socialised to behave in a dignified manner in such domains and to maintain socially defined distance, which is instrumental in ensuring their individuality as well as self-dignity. It is a defence mechanism as well. In several Indian cultures, those girls are looked down upon who do not conform to the norm of maintaining socially defined distance in different interaction situations. So, the girls of our country are habitual followers of social distancing norms which allow them to maintain four to 12 feet distance from strangers. It is not difficult to understand in the Indian context that they are selective in case of intimate and personal distance. 

The issue of vulnerability has got a new significance in this COVID-19 outbreak. Individuals (not only girls) have become vulnerable in intimate and personal distances; so they are suggested to maintain social distance. The unprecedented pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19 has degendered the practice of social distancing. Now, everyone, irrespective of sex, is advised to maintain social distance to prevent the body from contracting the disastrous viral infection. Violation of this social distance norm may bring about a threat to individuality and self-respect and may also be fatal for the self itself. The point to note is that today’s “universal” practice of maintaining social distance to avoid the spread of the virus (COVID-19), is already followed by the so-called “subjugated sex,” who are inclined to maintain social distance as a coping strategy to protect themselves from any unwanted physical touch in the public domain.  It is interesting to point out that in our country, as in other countries of the world, women are less affected by COVID-19 (see Table 1). One of the causes may be this particular behaviour pattern of women and girls in society.

Social Distancing and Sociology of Fear 

The prescription of social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 underlines an all-pervasive fear, which is essentially existential—fear of falling into a hitherto unknown illness and, hence, of facing extremely fatal social-physiological consequences. The source of fear is anticipation of an unknown danger. This realisation of the threat of danger or the possibilities of being affected by it, is the source of fear that increases with the increase in the probability of being affected. The threat of the pandemic has been so immediate and terrible that social distancing, as a matter of practice, is becoming a new marker in many social interactions (at least in the formal set-up). Fear, as an emotion, in this pandemic, is defeating the emotive component of many social interactions, even sometimes in the set-up of what Hall has termed as personal spaces, let alone what is known as intimate space. An interesting dialectic can be noticed in social distancing during interactions with friends and relatives during this pandemic. It is the dialectic between fear of COVID-19 and Indian tradition of physical proximity among the close acquaintances. Both emotions are strong and the resultant interactions can be treated as a function of fear (repelling) and physical closeness (contracting). And this dialectic is the source of “hesitation,” in many interaction situations, in maintaining social distance. In a well-defined situation, where the code of conduct and standard of behaviour are clear cut, hesitations do not arise. But the fear of COVID-19, prescription of social distancing and our cultural psyche (that considers physical closeness as a symbol of intimacy) makes many interactions confusing. “Hesitations” are a direct outcome of this “new normal.”

Fear is futuristic in this sense. People are afraid of the future consequences. The consequences or problems, for example, one is facing at a particular moment, may create trouble but do not create fear as the person concerned is already experiencing or going through that phase of difficulties. They become accustomed and know its present severity and nuances. But they do not know what will happen in the future if the problem aggravates. One is afraid of the future and the thinking revolves around “what will happen?” This is related to the unknown uncertainties that affect the rhythm of our everyday life. The causes of fear go when the future is known and predictable. For almost similar reasons, people are afraid of darkness particularly during the night when nothing is physically visible. As darkness increases the scope of anticipation of unknown consequences, so it increases the degree of fear. As soon as the lights lit up, darkness goes, visibility ensures certainty, and fear disappears. Psychologists often distinguish between fear and anxiety. In their analysis, fear originates from “anticipation of immediate dangers” (not so distant) whereas anxiety originates out of the anticipation of “future dangers” which are not immediate (Kring et al 2012). 

This “immediateness” of the threat of COVID-19 infection and the apprehension of its fatal consequences have not only made “fear of coronavirus” all-pervasive but also have objectified it. This is perhaps for the first time that the world has been made familiar with the image of a virus with its ball-like body and spike-like parts. This picture of COVID-19 virus is being displayed everywhere from television screens to the sachets of hand sanitiser, transforming the fear more realistic and objective. The fear of ghosts (abstract) is qualitatively different from the fear of coronavirus (concrete). No doubt, mass media and social site networks have played a major role in popularising the image of this tiny virus that has shattered the world. The provocations of the market to popularise the coronavirus-fighting products by making the fear more realistic and objective cannot be denied. In this sense, the fear of COVID-19 has not only been objectified but also commodified. The sudden surge in the demand of masks, sanitisers, and face shields points at the marketability of this fear. So, we do not know, for example, how the dengue virus looks like, but are sure of the structure and form of coronavirus. The image of coronavirus has made its imprint in the minds of people all over the world. The severity of the pandemic has made the process of “objectification of fear” a bit straightforward.

We have already said that the logic behind social distancing is fear. And whether a person would follow social distancing norms in a particular context to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is a function of the fear of getting infected and physical closeness. We have discussed that in the case of COVID-19, the fear is acute as its consequences can be devastating not only for the individual but also for the family as a whole. So, the factor behind the prescribed behavioural format in social interactions is fear and the immediate danger of being affected. It is interesting to note that social distancing, directed by the practice of untouchability, was legitimated by the fear of losing caste purity, but this secular form of untouchability is being legitimated by the fear of losing life itself—the fear of death.

The question that arises is that this fear is more of a middle-class phenomenon. The question is legitimate because of the gross rejection of the social distancing norms prescribed to contain the pandemic by a large number of people in our country. The vast majority of the people living in rural areas, who have been struggling for survival facing multiple hardships, have visibly been ignoring social distancing norms. It seems that their lives were already at stake, particularly during the national lockdown (since March 2020) that halted all economic activities. Amidst multiple threats and anxieties, that perpetually pushed the struggle for survival of the poor and marginalised people at the threshold, the fear of getting infected by COVID-19 got diluted. The same is true of the migrant labourers. To a certain section of the population, apparently affluent and having a stable economic background, the fear of coronavirus emerged as the most life-threatening issue. A different story has been observed among those whose life was already threatened. The threat of COVID-19 to them is not absolute, but one among many others!

Fear is adaptive (Getzfeld 2004) as in most of the cases, it leads to the framing of coping strategies on the basis of existing resources and facilities. For obvious reasons, these coping strategies are designed to get rid of the dangers of the immediate future. It is not to mention that fear develops from the apprehension of negative consequences. Rewarding consequences does not create fear. The degree of fear depends on the degree of negativity (and its probability) from the perspective of the individual concerned. The same stimuli may not evoke the same type and degree of fear in the mind of two different individuals. In this sense, fear is both context-specific and individual-specific. These combinations determine the actual dynamics of social distancing.

Women in This Pandemic

Initial analysis of the available data suggests that men are more susceptible to COVID-19. In our country as well as in other countries, the trend is the same—male patients have outnumbered female patients. In India, so far (as of 11 May 2021), the percentage of the COVID-19-infected male patients is 65.49% whereas it is 34.51% in the case of females (based on available data). 

Statewise analysis of the available data also shows that the men are more vulnerable in this pandemic than the women (Table 1). Except in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Haryana and Jharkhand, all other Indian states reveal the same. In these states where a reverse trend has been found (Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Haryana and Jharkhand), detailed data were not available for a large number of patients. For example, in Haryana (as of 11 May 2021), detailed data for only 16 patients were available. Similarly, sex-wise data for Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Jharkhand were not available for a large number of affected persons. 

Mooney et al (2020) pointing out the worldwide skew towards the men, have observed that in two of the “hardest-hit” countries—Italy and South Korea—60% and 61% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases are men, respectively. If we put these figures in a comparative chart the fact becomes clear that coronavirus affects gender differently (Figure 2). The first epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, China, also has experienced gender bias among the confirmed COVID-19 patients. Report of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) China Joint Mission on coronavirus disease says that among 55,924 laboratory-confirmed cases (as of 20 February 2020), 51.1% are male. After the publication of this report by the WHO in February 2020, different countries, including the United States took note of it and it reflected in their policy frameworks to fight against COVID-19. It has not gone unnoticed that apart from the physiological factors, behavioural and cultural factors are equally important in increasing the risks of contamination among men. 


Figure 2: The Percentage of Male and Female COVID-19 Patients in India, South Korea and Italy  
Source: Graphical representation of data from Mooney et al (2020).

A Learning from the Animal Kingdom

If human’s use of space around the body is culturally necessitated and normatively practised, animals’ use of space is genetically designed and environmentally conditioned. Like human beings, every animal builds up a boundary of its own and feels threatened when (Hall 1969) any unknown living being enters that region. Within this boundary, it feels unchallenged and exhibits its normal behaviour. The point up to which an animal allows others and does not feel threatened can be termed as the tolerance limit for that animal against that stranger. The tolerance limit varies from animal to animal. The fear erupted from the threat is existential in nature in that any compromise may bring fatal consequences, both among us and in the world of the non-humans. In the context of the recent pandemic, the fear of being infected from COVID-19 is helping all of us in fixing up a tolerance limit more overtly than ever before. 

 An interesting transformation of “space” surrounding the body of a person into “place” takes place as a result. Here, we should distinguish between a “space” and a “place.” “Place” is not simply a geographical area out there, not simply an abstract notion of space, rather it is where we live, that which gives us comfort and takes away the fear of being attacked by an unknown enemy. It is a psychological metamorphosis of space. Gradually, an unfamiliar space becomes our own place, maybe for a few minutes, in a temporal interaction with others. Our cultural practices gradually unfold. Thus, a place is created and is lived in. Some emotive and symbolic components are added when we feel comfortable within the boundaries of space, within the tolerance limit. The feeling of security acts as a catalyst to transform a space into a place. The same space is a place for somebody and is simply a geographical space to others. It can be termed as multiple representations of space. The idea of “social distancing” becomes more meaningful from such a psycho-cultural perspective.

Table 1: Sex-wise Distribution of COVID-19 Patients in India (as of 11 May 2021)

State/UT

Male
patients

Female
patients

Total

Percentage of male patients

Percentage of female patients

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

 5

6

11

45.45

54.55

Andhra Pradesh

 307

110

417

73.62

26.38

Assam

 101

50

151

66.89

33.11

Bihar

 8,806

1,334

10,140

86.84

13.16

Chandigarh

 1,806

 1,407

3,213

56.21

43.79

Chhattisgarh 

 10

7

17

58.82

41.18

Delhi

 37 

9

46

80.43

19.57

Goa

 120

43

163

73.62

26.38

Gujarat

 1,703

961

 2,664 

63.93

36.07

Haryana

 5

 11 

16 

31.25 

68.75

Himachal Pradesh

 6

 3

9

66.67

33.33

Jammu & Kashmir

 11

 4

 15

73.33

26.67

Jharkhand

 2

5

7

28.57

71.43

Karnataka

 49,054

28,180

77,234

63.51 

36.49

Kerala

 2,446

1,284

3,730

65.58

34.42

Ladakh

5

1

6

83.33

16.67

Madhya Pradesh

17

8

25

68.00

32.00

Maharashtra

 52

 31

 83 

62.65

37.35

Mizoram

 22

17

39 

56.41

43.59

Odisha

1,408 

373

1,781 

79.06

20.94

Puducherry

 8

 2 

 10

80.00 

20.00 

Punjab

28

23 

51 

54.90 

45.10

Rajasthan

 26

15 

41

63.41 

36.59 

Tamil Nadu

12,861

7,704 

20,565 

62.54 

37.46 

Telangana

39

10

49 

79.59

20.41 

Uttar Pradesh

36

 26

62

58.06

41.94 

Uttarakhand

550

253

803

68.49 

31.51 

West Bengal

14

11

25

56.00

44.00 

Total

79,485

41,888

1,21,373

65.49

34.51

Source:  https://api.covid19india.org/documentation/csv/  as accessed on 11-05-2021

Distance: A Residue?

Can “distance” be treated as a “residue”? If we use the interpretations put forward by Vilfredo Pareto, possibly, it is. If it is not so, then, why does it become a driving force, an instrumental category that determines the course of interactions in many ways? In the process of its cultural and psychological manifestations through the behavioural patterns of the concerned persons, it becomes an independent variable with multilayered meanings. Distance (except, perhaps, intimate distance) between two interacting individuals is inevitable. But, as a societal site, it always undergoes the interplay between cultural practices and subjective feelings, making it symbolic and a subject matter of sociological analysis. As Srivastava (2014: 95) observes “…a specific sensibility of people and spaces” always exists “one that lies at the heart of the relationship between strangers, and that between spaces.” These everyday affairs of keeping distance, with all its subliminality and physicality, become at once an interesting analytical category. The dialectic of “distance,” the tension between nearness and farness, also starts from here, particularly in the Indian context, which advocates the value of closeness and physical proximity. Would the pandemic be able to change our age-old practice by encouraging social distancing in our everyday life? But, for sure, the “strain of distance,” in the minds of millions of Indians, would perpetuate.

The author is thankful to the referee for the valuable comments and suggestions to enrich the paper.

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