The World Health Organization (WHO) defined “mass gathering” to be a “High profile international sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cups as well as international religious events such as the Hajj”. Lower profile conferences and events, however, can also meet their definition of a mass gathering. So, I turned to one of my main online reading sources about COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and there I encountered the notoriously famous term “Social Distancing”, and here’s what I’ve got to tell you about it.
Social Distancing And The Best Practices for Flattening The Curve Of The Coronavirus Pandemic
Remaining out of congregate settings, avoid mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible, is how CDC specified what Social Distancing is. They even recommended against any gatherings of 50 or more people over the next eight weeks, in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
With that said, many schools, libraries, universities, places of worship, and sporting and cultural institutions have also shut down for at least the next few weeks. These measures are an attempt to enforce distance between people, a proven way to slow pandemics. President Donald Trump even endorsed it on Twitter with an elbow bump.
The Department of Health (DOH) emphasized the importance of this practice as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even medical experts have also been urging people to practice voluntary “social distancing.” But still, people all over the Philippines have been out in large numbers. This might suggest more than a little confusion around what social distancing really is and who should be practicing it.
This is deeply worrying because even those who become only mildly ill — and maybe even those who never even know they are infected — can propel the exponential movement of the virus through the population. It was emphasized, and it was made clear that it’s important for everyone to practice social distancing, not just those considered to be at high risk or who are seriously ill.
This is not a drill
It is difficult for us to follow during this critical time because we have never been through anything like this before, they said. But this strategy saved thousands of lives both during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and, more recently, in Mexico City during the 2009 flu pandemic.
What exactly is social distancing? Put simply, the idea is to maintain a distance between you and other people — in this case, at least six feet. That also means minimizing contact with people. Experts recommended to avoid public transportation whenever possible, limit nonessential travel, work from home and skip social gatherings — and definitely do not go to crowded bars and sporting arenas. Every single reduction in the number of contacts we have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population.
Here are some answered questions from experts1 for practical guidance.
I’m young and don’t have any risk factors. Can I continue to socialize? Please don’t. There is no question that older people and those with underlying health conditions are most vulnerable to the virus, but young people are by no means immune.
And there is a greater public health imperative. Even people who show only mild symptoms may pass the virus to many, many others — particularly in the early course of the infection before they even realize they are sick. So you might keep the chain of the infection going right to your own older or high-risk relatives. You may also contribute to the number of people infected, causing the pandemic to grow rapidly and overwhelm the health care system.
If you ignore the guidance on social distancing, you will essentially put yourself and everyone else at much higher risk.
Can I leave my house? Absolutely. It’s alright to go outdoors for fresh air and exercise — to walk your dog, go for a hike or ride your bicycle, for example. The point is not to remain indoors, but to avoid being in close contact with people.
You may also need to leave the house for medicines or other essential resources. But there are things you can do to keep yourself and others safe during and after these excursions.
When you do leave your home, wipe down any surfaces you come into contact with, disinfect your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer and avoid touching your face. Above all, frequently wash your hands — especially whenever you come in from outside, before you eat or before you’re in contact with the very old or very young.
Can I go to the supermarket? Yes. But buy as much as you can at a time in order to minimize the number of trips, and pick a time when the store is least likely to be crowded.
When you do go, be aware that any surface inside the store may be contaminated. Use a disinfecting wipe to clean the handle of the grocery cart, for example. Experts did not recommend wearing gloves, but if you do use them, make sure you don’t touch your face until you have removed the gloves.
Experts recommended stowing your cellphone in an inaccessible place so that you don’t absent-mindedly reach for it while shopping. That could be a transmission opportunity, and that is why you also need to clean your phone to help protect against harmful germs and viruses.
If it’s a long shopping trip, you may want to bring a hand sanitizer with you and disinfect your hands in between. And when you get home, wash your hands right away. Those at high risk may want to avoid even these outings if they can help it, especially if they live in densely populated areas.
Can I go out to dinner at a restaurant? Some establishments were advised to operate in limited hours when the community quarantine policy was imposed by the government. There is no specific nationwide guidance yet on this. But restaurants were supposed to be operating at half the capacity to maintain social distancing and soften the economic impact. But in small restaurants, that may still mean you’re too close to other diners. It’s also not possible to maintain true social distance from the people preparing or serving the food.
In general, avoid going out to restaurants. If you’re going to go, go to someplace that you trust. Choose spacious restaurants and ones where the staff members likely practice good hygiene. Better yet, opt for takeout or food delivery if you must. If you’re concerned about the restaurant’s financial future, ask about purchasing gift certificates you can redeem later.
Can a family member come to visit? That depends on who is in your family and how healthy they are. Certainly, a sick family should not visit. If you have vulnerable people in your family, or who are very old, then limit in-person contact.
But if everyone in the family is young and healthy, then some careful interaction in small groups is probably fine. The smaller the gathering, the healthier the people are to start with, the lower the risk of the situation is going to be.
At the same time, you don’t want family members to feel isolated or not have the support of loved ones, so check in with them by phone or plan activities to do with them online via video group chat or online games.
Can I take my kids to the playground? That depends. If your children have any illness, even if it’s not related to the coronavirus, keep them at home. If they seem healthy and desperately need to burn energy, outdoor activities such as bike rides are generally alright. But people, especially in higher-risk areas, may want to think twice about trips to high-traffic public areas like the playground.
Kids also tend to touch their mouths, noses, and faces constantly, so parks or playgrounds with few kids and few contaminated surfaces are ideal. Take hand sanitizer with you and clean any surfaces with disinfecting wipes before they play.
Serious illness from this virus in kids is rare, so the kids themselves might be safe. That doesn’t mean they can’t come home and give it to Lolo or Lola. So kids should wash their hands often, especially before they come into contact with older or high-risk family members.
I’m scared to feel alone. Is there anything I can do to make this easier? It’s a scary and uncertain time. Staying in touch with family and friends is more important than ever because we are biologically hard-wired to seek each other out when we are stressed.
Medical experts were worried about the long-term impact of social isolation on both the sick and the healthy. The absence of physical touch can have a profound impact on our stress levels, and make us feel under threat. Imagining a warm embrace from a loved one can calm the body’s fight-or-flight response.
In the meantime, we are lucky enough to have technologies at hand that can maintain social connections. It’s important to note that social distancing does not mean social isolation.
You stay connected via social media, chat, and video. Be creative: Schedule dinners with friends over FaceTime, participate in online game nights, plan to watch television shows at the same time, enroll in remote learning classes. It’s especially important to reach out to those who are sick or to high-risk people who are self-isolating. A phone call with a voice is better than text, and a video chat is better than a telephone call, according to experts.
How long will we need to practice social distancing? That is a big unknown. A lot will depend on how well the social distancing measures in place work and how much we can slow the pandemic down. But prepare to hunker down for at least a month, and possibly much longer.
The recommendations on social distancing in some countries have continued to escalate with the number of infections and deaths, and the health system has become increasingly strained. For now, it’s probably indefinite. We’re in uncharted territory.
Aside from social distancing, be responsible to also promote handwashing and respiratory hygiene at all times. Make sure you have emergency contact details in the case of an emergency situation or if highly needed in your community. You should make it clear to them that this information will be shared with the local public health authorities to enable them to provide immediate attention to healthcare, as well as rapid contact tracing.
You should also consider boosting your immune system to avoid sickness due to harmful viruses. Always to a fact check whenever information will be shared (both offline and online) to your family, your friends, and your community. Source out COVID-19 related information and advisories only through credible sources.
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- A version of this article appears on March 17, 2020, of the New York Times edition.
- Flattening the curve refers to community isolation measures that keep the daily number of disease cases at a manageable level for medical providers.