COVID-19 outbreak has confronted nations with unprecedented challenges to both their health system and their economies. A significant strategic response adopted by most countries has been the implementation of social distancing measures. Social distancing, also known as physical distancing, is a set of measures intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease by reducing the number of times people come into proximity and maintaining a physical distance between people. While health experts such as the world health organization (WHO) and centre for disease control (CDC) agree that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be stopped, it can be reduced significantly by measures currently put together under the term “social distancing.” To limit human contact, the CDC advised people to stay at least 6 feet (about two arm’s length), especially those not from the same household. Keeping a distance of at least 6 feet reduces the transmission rate significantly, which increases the time it takes for cases to double. In compliance with social distancing rules, many people across the countries have begun working remotely. Some schools have cancelled traditional classes; gyms, retail stores, restaurants, bars, and churches have shuttered. All of these closures are attempts to comply with social distancing rules, which is a crucial intervention to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Nevertheless, if social distancing is vital to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is essential to know what is working, what is not working and how it can be fixed?
What is working
Working remotely has become the order of the day in this current COVID-19 pandemic. The ease of working from home gives people more flexibility in terms of location and time management, while also minimizing the burden on rail and road infrastructure. This, in turn, has a positive impact on the society. Even when normalities return, and people are expected to go back to the office, most people may still prefer working remotely from home.
In adherence to social distancing rules, customers’ capacity for workplaces and institutions has been limited. For example, some banks only allow three to five customers at a time, and there is a display sign at the entrance to alert the customers. This restriction on the number of customers allowed in makes it possible for social distancing to be maintained.
Using floor markings and floor tape at grocery stores has been an effective measure in maintaining social distancing. The floor markings indicate where the line begins and ends, so customers understand where to wait in line. This strategy has been working, and it is still working in most grocery shops and shopping malls.
COVID-19 crisis has led to the closure of several schools across different countries, and this has, in turn, compel most higher educational institutions to embrace online teaching and learning. In compliance with social distancing rules, most teachers are already using the Internet to deliver their assignments, course contents, and tests. Some institutions have also given out router and mobile sim to aid their tutor and student connections.
In reception areas like hospitals, the seats are placed six feet apart and display signs at the check-in desk, reminding clients and patients to maintain social distance between each other. Also, in some gatherings like churches, the chairs are placed six feet apart from each other in compliance with social distancing rules.
Hand sanitiser and hand-washing facilities are made available in most public places like shopping malls, restaurants, and bars. This helps to improve people’s hygiene and also to reduce the spread of coronavirus. This is one of the best practices that have been working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lastly, the CDC has recommended using face masks in public settings where it may be challenging to comply with social distancing rules. This recommendation has been widely accepted as people without face masks cannot come into some public settings such as grocery stores, workplaces, hospitals, and restaurants.
What is not working
With the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining social distancing in public transportation such as buses and taxis has not been effective. While the number of passengers that the taxis and buses can carry has been reduced to meet social distancing guidelines, this has not been effective as some public transport drivers do not adhere to these rules. In some instances, drivers do not remember to sanitise their passengers’ hands before allowing them to get into the vehicle. In another example, some commuters get into the vehicle without using face masks, and the drivers of those vehicles remain indifferent about it.
Complying with social distancing rules on streets flood with people on a shopping spree is not working in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. People cannot be held back from buying things from the streets, markets, or shops. Consequently, there is a need for an alternative to physical shops to be able to reduce the enormous number of gathering on streets and shops.
Similarly, adhering to social distancing rules within a household is almost impossible. Avoiding close contact with family members who stay together is very difficult as they tend to enjoy one another’s company. Consequently, it is essential to minimize close contact with someone in the family who may have been infected with COVID-19 disease.
Finally, while people have been advised by the WHO and CDC to order their groceries online to maintain social distancing rules, some people do not always remember to wash their hands or sanitise their hands after handling the delivery. This has exacerbated the spread to COVID-19 in most households and communities.
How to fix it
Firstly, people need to avoid non-essential gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 disease. Alternatively, they can connect with their friends through virtual options such as video chats, phone calls, emails, and text messages. This alternative option helps to maintain social distancing rules while still staying connected with your loved ones.
Secondly, shops or grocery stores should only be visited in person only if necessary, and people must be at least 6 feet apart from others while shopping. Also, instead of going to the shops on Saturday when the place will be fully packed with people, it is better to go on a weekday, preferably early in the morning. Alternately, people can order online, and when the delivery is made, people must wash their hands after handling any deliveries.
Thirdly, people should embrace the use of drive-through and curbside pick-up to reduce face-to-face contact with others. The physical distance must also be maintained during the exchange with the delivery service providers while wearing a face mask.
Fourthly, suppose any member of the household is beginning to experience COVID-19 symptoms or is sick. In that case, that person needs to stay home and maintain social distancing from other household members by going into self-isolation in a room where no other household member will be allowed to come into close contact with the sick person.
Lastly, if possible, people should avoid taking public transportation, including taxis, buses, and rideshares. And if people must take public transportation, it is better to sit at the back seat, especially in bigger vehicles, to remain at least 6 feet away from the driver. Besides, people should avoid using a pooled ride that requires more passengers to be picked up when using taxis or rideshare. Similarly, drivers of public transportation and passengers who do not comply with social distancing rules (e.g., wearing face masks) must be arrested by government agencies such as police officers or traffic agents. This implies that police officers should be positioned in strategic places where most vehicle commute so they can easily identify the violators of the rules.
In conclusion, social distancing is crucial in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. It should be noted that COVID-19 can spread through sneezing, coughing, and close contact. Consequently, if people can reduce close contact with others, then the probability of contracting the virus will be drastically reduced. This will, in turn, minimize the spread of the disease to the community.
Dr. Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her capacity.