Within a week, social distancing has morphed from a popular meme and a trending hashtag to emerge as a front-runner for the 2020 Oxford Word of the Year, which chose climate emergency as the key word in 2019.
To those who are distant from social media, the expression may sound like a politically correct term to describe an old-fashioned messy break-up. It’s anything but that. The term is the official public health terminology used to describe curfew-like restrictive measures imposed on communities to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease, like pandemic influenzas, such as H1N1 in 2009-10.
Public health experts advocate short-term misanthropy during pandemics to prevent infection. They argue that if you don’t meet anyone, your chances of meeting an infected person or touching a contaminated surface will become limited.
The term was coined following the 1957-58 influenza pandemic, when a H2N2 killed an estimated 1.1 million people worldwide. Epidemiologists found that there were spikes in new cases following public gatherings, such as conferences and festivals, with infection being the highest among schoolchildren who are in close contact with peers.
“Avoiding crowds and maintaining a distance of about one metre from others lowers the chances of getting infected as Covid-19, which spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which are inhaled or swallowed through direct contact or contaminated surfaces,” said Dr Naresh Trehan, chairman, Medanta —The Medicity.
Steering clear from everyone irrespective of symptoms or travel history is the surest way to stay safe.
Adopting social distancing at the start of the epidemic, as is being adopted in some states in the country, has worked in China, where draconian lockdown was more effective than travel bans and other restrictions, reported a study in the ‘Science’ magazine.
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“Besides China, several countries at various stages of the pandemic have adopted this public health tool and changed how businesses are run, education is imparted and social interactions occur,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, chairman, Public Health foundation of India.
Schools and universities have closed and web-based learning is being used, conferences and festivals are cancelled, and meetings have been replaced with conference calls. Workplace social distancing alone reduces flu cases, with the decline greatest in areas where preventative measures like frequent hand-washing were practised, said a study in BMC Public Health in 2010.
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