In an effort to keep COVID-19 from spreading, many of us have (hopefully) been practicing social distancing—keeping approximately six feet or two meters between you and another person. When you go to the grocery, for example, you might notice markers on the floor, prompting people to keep their distance.
During a press briefing held on March 20, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that it's important to practice these safety measures "but it doesn't mean that socially, we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family."
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead for COVID-19 and an infectious disease epidemiologist, said, "Technology right now has advanced so great that we can keep connected in many ways without actually physically being in the same room or physically being in the same space with people...A lot about this is—we say social distancing, we're changing to say physical distance. And that's on purpose because we want people to still remain connected. So find ways to do that, find ways through the internet and through different social media to remain connected because your mental health going through this is just as important as your physical health."
So how crucial is physical distancing at this point?
Executive Director Dr. Michael J. Ryan said that it usually starts with containment: identifying cases of COVID-19 and the people they've been in contact with. But when it reaches a community level (like it has), then "it's no longer possible to identify all the cases or all of the contacts then you move to separating everybody from everybody else."
Physical distancing is implemented because you don't know who has the virus. Dr. Ryan explained, "[Physical distancing] is a necessary measure in situations where the virus is fairly widespread in communities but what we should hope is—and this is maybe the thing that we have to be very careful with—large-scale physical distancing, movement restriction are in this sense, a temporary measure."
What they do is they slow down, to some extent, the spread of infection in communities and thereby take pressure off the healthcare system. They don't fundamentally deal with the problem of disease transmission and if you want to get back to what countries like Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong and others are doing, you really have to get back to the hardcore public health measures of case finding, contact tracing, quarantine, isolation.
So in some senses we need to slow down the virus, then we need to suppress the virus and then we need to go after the virus and that takes different combinations of different measures but social or physical distancing measures and movement restriction measures are very hard socially and they're very hard economically.
We need to use whatever time those measures are in place to put in place a public health architecture that can then go after the virus because lifting those measures may result in the disease returning if you don't have in place the public health measures to deal with the virus."