Home » Columns » India doesn’t have clear social distancing rules. Citizens must chip in – analysis

India doesn’t have clear social distancing rules. Citizens must chip in – analysis


Compliance with social distancing guidelines is expected to decrease the spread, morbidity, and mortality related to any contagious disease. Social distancing, according to the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW), is “a non-pharmaceutical infection prevention and control intervention implemented to avoid/decrease contact between those who are infected with a disease-causing pathogen and those who are not, so as to stop or slow down the rate and extent of disease transmission in a community”. As per the unlock guidelines issued on August 29, based on the directive related to social distancing, individuals must maintain a distance of six feet in public spaces.

While social distancing is a widely-used term, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization has promoted the term physical distancing over social distancing. According to her, physical distancing is “keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another”. A close examination of all the unlock guidelines show that the need to maintain six feet distance in public spaces, while being an extremely important directive, is directing people to maintain physical distancing rather than social distancing.

On May 10, when the total number of cases in the United Kingdom (UK) was 219,183, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a conditional plan to reopen society. Accordingly, the public was allowed to enjoy parks and public spaces, and take unlimited outdoor exercise provided they were done only with members of the same household. Today when the doubling rate in the UK is 129 days, social distancing guidelines, among other things, suggest the following for people living in England: A maximum of six people can meet outdoors and indoors from multiple households; a household of more than six can gather in public or private, but not join members outside the household.

While the physical distancing guidelines related to public spaces are well understood by people in India, adherence to the guidelines is another question. The guidelines on large public gatherings and congregations are clear — they are prohibited, as was observed during the Ganesh Charturthi and Moharram festivals.

But, with the easing of restrictions and phased reopening, what social distancing rules are people to follow related to their movement to other households for, presumably, avoidable social interactions?

One can argue that all are expected to wear masks and practise social distancing, but the definition of social distancing is six feet distance. A recent research study finds that silent transmission of Covid-19 during the pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic stages was estimated to be responsible for more than half of the overall transmission. Pre-symptomatic Covid-19 patients can transmit the infection, unaware they’re carrying the virus, by leaving their infected droplets on surfaces. Further, a team of researchers from Princeton University and the University of Montpellier, while calculating infection probability during casual conversations in a social setting (across the table over lunch or parties) found that in a poorly-ventilated space, the infection risk of speaking with a superspreader, without a mask, even for less than one minute, is high even with a three-metre separation. A caveat: This paper is yet to be peer-reviewed.

So, in the absence of detailed-and-clear social distancing guidelines, can we not make our own citizen-formulated ones? Learning from other nations, can we not, for instance, say we will physically meet members from another household only for essential purposes, like care-giving, and forsake physical interaction for all other avoidable purposes? Access to technology has ensured we don’t get disconnected from our families and loved ones during the lockdown. Maybe our lives, for a few months more, will be dependent on mediated-technology. But aren’t we capable of these small sacrifices? For the numbers to come down, all of us must do our bit.

Payal S Kapoor is associate professor Area Chair-Marketing FORE School of Management, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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