Why do we use the term “social distancing” in response to COVID-19 when the more accurate term might be “physical distancing”? Physical social distancing does not mean virtual social distancing so why do we act like both terms are the same? And what might some implications be to business if it changed how it responds to physical social distancing?
Economic and Social Cost
We know physical “social distancing” comes at a “significant economic cost” as outlined by Kalipso Chalkidou of Imperial College London but maybe in the long term it doesn’t have to and maybe it is time we started to change how we view the issue.
Social distancing also has a significant health cost.
An analysis of scientific literature by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a research psychologist at Brigham Young University in 2015 found that the quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships is linked not only to mental health but to morbidity and mortality. Chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%.
Image source: www.scottliddell.net
Social distancing is conveyed as potentially limiting the spread of COVID-19 and thereby potentially saving your life and the life of your loved ones and those in the broader community.
Social distancing practices are changes in behaviour that can help stop the spread of infections. These often include curtailing [physical] social contact, work and schooling among seemingly healthy individuals, with a view to delaying transmission and reducing the size of an outbreak.
– Coronavirus: What is social distancing and how do you do it? New Scientist
Physical “Social distancing” with COVID-19 is here to stay, writes Gideon Lichfield of MIT Technology Review and with it a whole host of changes to how we operate as humans.
Lichfield view of a life with physical “social distancing” is a disconcerting one. One that involves intrusive surveillance by flights, public transport and venues all for the public good as well as the massive economic damage to businesses and institutions that have relied to date on physical social interaction.
In the short term, this will be hugely damaging to businesses that rely on people coming together in large numbers: restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs, gyms, hotels, theaters, cinemas, art galleries, shopping malls, craft fairs, museums, musicians and other performers, sporting venues (and sports teams), conference venues (and conference producers), cruise lines, airlines, public transportation, private schools, day-care centers. By using the term “social distancing” to mean “physical distancing” perhaps we risk increasing confusion, social isolation and loneliness among people not to mention creating a landscape ripe for economic hardship for institutions and businesses that rely at the moment on social ‘physical interaction’ for eg art galleries, live venues, conferences and expos, shopping centres, retail outlets and museums.
But the reality is even when physically distanced people still socially interact.
They do this through the use of social media (connect with friends), live steaming (yoga and gym classes for example), and instant message platforms like Slack and Google Chat (collaborate and chat with colleagues).
So with that in mind maybe its time even from an economic point of view that we started to change how we frame the issue.
The physical is not the virtual
In education for example, there already exists online services that enable online learning and live streaming for replication of the class room experience. The impetus is now there with COVID-19 to accelerate adoption of these technologies among schools and universities. Yes, children may have to miss physical face to face classes with their teacher and classmates but that does not mean they need to miss virtual face to face classes.
In terms of art galleries and museums, there are technology solutions already out there that enable cultural institions not to mention conferences and expos to deliver rich, immersive and interactive virtual reality experiences to clients and customers.
So if the virtual solutions are there why haven’t these businesses virtualised their offerings en masse to date? Partly it has been due to technology development and adoption. It is only recently that VR hardware development has enabled wireless all in one headsets. But largely it has been due to drivers.
Galleries and museums, shopping centres, tourist operators, conferences and expos haven’t felt an immediate pressure to create rich, immersive and interactive experiences which can be delivered virtually and that still enable virtual social interaction.
Delivering VR experiences of their collection and gallety has often been more a “nice to” than a “need to”.
Five years ago in writing about the applications of VR across ecommerce and cultural institutions we observed:
The Smithsonian Institution — the world’s largest museum and research complex which has 19 museums and galleries has apparently 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in its collection with an estimated 2 percent on display at any one time.
Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia holds 16 million items in “high-quality storage facilities”. The British Museum is reported to have 99 per cent of its collection in storage. 99 percent.
Imagine if these museums made all their collections available through building online virtual museums? A museum would be able to exponentially grow its audience share and offer to a global audience 24/7 364 days of the year access to all their collections currently in storage. Not to mention providing these museums with a channel for additional revenue generation through purchase of products from the virtual museum.
The world has changed a lot since 2015 and with it the need for many businesses to look to how they translate their unique offerings and value propositions to virtual offerings.
The technology solutions are there. All that is needed is taking that first step.
This post first appeared on Snobal Midweek.