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Language Matters: Is it Social or Physical Distancing to be followed during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

About the author: Dr. Sai Krishna Gudi is a Ph.D. research scholar at the College of Pharmacy, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, Canada, whose current research looks at the Utilization, Effectiveness and Safety of Direct-acting Antivirals for the treatment of Hepatitis-C in Manitoba. His research areas of interest include Evidence-Based Medicine, Pharmacoepidemiology and Outcomes Research, Elements of Clinical Pharmacy and Pharmacy Practice. Follow Dr. Gudi on Twitter @SaiKGudi

During the course of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many of us have come across and in fact, became familiar with the term social distancing, while it is argued that physical distancing is the appropriate phrase to be used in containing the transmission of the virus [1]. Physical distancing is a geographical distance that has to be maintained between person to person to prevent the spread of infection and usually measured in the metric system such as meters and feet, while social distancing refers to a distance across social boundaries [2]. The term social distancing can imply a sense of staying away from the social connections and stop communicating with one another, while instead public could actually remain socially connected even while being apart.

Choosing the right language matters and accurate dissemination of information is vital, especially when mankind is facing a novel pandemic like COVID-19. At times, social distancing could be a threat, as it makes people socially isolate and thereby potentially leading to stress, which further contributes to anxiety, loneliness, fear and grief that could in turn lead to a whole new crisis [3]. Undoubtedly, physical distancing measures have to be in place to protect everyone’s physical wellbeing; however, mental wellbeing is also obviously important, and it is suggested, therefore, to rephrase the term social distancing to physical distancing [4].

The term social distancing seems to be misleading, and its widespread usage could be counterproductive [5]. During these unprecedented times of COVID-19, where social isolation is a serious concern, accurately describing what we are actually supposed to do in preventing the transmission of the disease is crucial. Although to remain physically apart is an essential message, people could stay socially connected using online social media platforms[6], due to the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health. As social ties are the critical elements in getting through disasters like COVID-19,social connectedness coupled with the physical distancing measures should be adopted. Furthermore, social connections are of utmost significance for building faith and trust and recovering from psychological distress that is caused during pandemics. As a result, the public, including health authorities, are inclined towards the term physical distancing rather than social distancing [7].

Although public health organizations such as World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had widely used the term social distancing in initial days of the pandemic, finally now they are shifting their language accordingly and trying to correct an early error of mistaking social distancing for physical distancing [8]. Correspondingly, the WHO is now officially advocating against the use of phrase social distancing and is from here on recommending the phrase physical distancing instead [9].

In a nutshell, the whole idea is that while maintaining a physical distance is absolutely essential to combat this global pandemic, it is also equally essential to stay socially connected. Adhering to the mitigating measures such as maintaining distance is not about breaking social connections with family and friends, but rather maintaining a physical distance to make sure that disease does not spread. Therefore, physical distancing could be a better term to be used than social distancing, especially during pandemics. 


1. Aziz S (2020). Why ‘physical distancing’ is better than ‘social distancing’. News. World Health Organization.

2. Hensley L (2020). Social distancing is out, physical distancing is in- here’s is how to do it. Global News.

3. Banks A (2020). Social vs Physical distancing: Why it matters. The importance of social connection in the pandemic. Psychology Today.

4. Tangermann V (2020). It’s officially time to stop using the phrase ‘social distancing’. Science alert.

5. Kort J (2020). Practice physical distancing, not social distancing. Psychology Today.

6. Gudi SK, Tiwari KK (2020). Preparedness and Lessons Learned from the Novel Coronavirus Disease. Int J Occup Environ Med, 11(2):108–112.

7. Jones AM (2020). Why health officials say ‘physical distancing’ is a better term than ‘social distancing’. CTV News.

8. World Health Organization (2020). WHO audio emergencies coronavirus press conference.

9. Kaur H (2020). Forget ‘social distancing.’ The WHO prefers we call it ‘physical distancing’ because social connections are more important than ever. CNN.  

  1. True. What is needed is maintaining geographical distance to prevent from bring attacked by covid19. Social connectivity among family, friends and relatives is very much essential to be fit mentally.

  2. For 100 days in Italy I have been fighting with the definition of SOCIAL distancing, while I strongly promoted the use of physical distancing as the correct one. In these last 100 days, actually, I have been promoting effectively my social attitude, concern and activity with all people I addressed to. I also suggested journalists and Organizations to imlement the right concept of “physical”. Unfortunately the concept never passed, the Institutions are still using SOCIAL and most people still do not make a difference between the two. I will renovate my invitation through our organization website and this time I will annex also your blog with references.

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