[OPINION] Social distancing as a form of social exclusion
Up until a few days ago, the World Health Organization repeatedly emphasized “social distancing” in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Broadly defined, social distancing is understood as maintaining a distance of least a meter for individuals in a social interaction.
Professor Filomin Gutierrez of the UP Diliman’s Department of Sociology quickly questioned the use of social distancing. She elaborated that in social sciences, social distance determines the strength and depth of inclusion, family, engagement, and trust in a community. Social distance also implies the perceived distinction between one’s and other people’s identities, unfamiliarity with others, and even the degree of closeness with others.
For many, "social distancing" may appear as a very neutral term, but social distance is also illustrative of asymmetric power relations, access to resources, and willingness to accept and interact with a stigmatized group (e.g. Magee and Smith, 2013 and Coventry and Case, 2020). Thus, maintaining social distance in human interactions can potentially exacerbate existing prejudices and discrimination. More importantly, the sense of dissimilarity felt by high-power individuals may result in further loss of empathy on the plight of low-power individuals (Magee and Smith, 2013). (READ: [OPINION] Let’s not forget the poor during the coronavirus pandemic)
Not surprisingly, during the March 20 briefing of the WHO, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove emphasized the need to shift from social distancing to physical distancing to stop people from transmitting the COVID-19 virus to one another. Kerhove further emphasized that they want family and friends to remain socially connected through technology, in this time of crisis. Closer to home, Prof. Gutierrez recommended the use of the term “interpersonal physical distancing.”
While the WHO started to veer away from “social distancing” to the more appropriate term of “physical distancing,” the emerging management of this health emergency is replete with illustrations of unevenness in accessing basic resources, and powerlessness of the most vulnerable groups to weather the situation.
Admittedly, the social protection program coverage of the Philippines has improved in the last few years. However, people who work in the informal sector still lack adequate protection and inclusion in risk insurance schemes (World Bank, 2018). There is also the absence of social safety nets for the daily-wage earners who are barred from going to their places of work due to the expanded community quarantine. (READ: [ANALYSIS] The Philippine gov't should get cash into the hands of the poor, now)
These economic shocks have dire consequences on the most vulnerable groups, including the children and the older members of the households who need adequate nutrition, to ward off the possible attack of the COVID-19 virus. For these groups, the sense of isolation is not only social but also economic as well.
What the numbers are telling us? How dire is the situation?
Illustrative is the case of one city in Metro Manila where disadvantaged households needed to make adjustments to respond to economic disruptions. Based on the survey conducted by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Community Welfare, Wellness, and Well-Being Laboratory (CW3) in September 2018, the majority (63.14%) of these households were already struggling with various degrees of food insecurity with a quarter (24.68%) classified as severely food insecure.
After the onset of high food-price inflation in 2018, between February and September, food insecurity increased from 63.14% to 75.97%, which means that the majority of the households lack consistent access to enough nutritious and healthy food.
While many are able to work from home during the ECQ period, not everyone has that same option. The vulnerability of these daily-wage earners is very glaring in these difficult times. They do not get any income when they do not show up for work, and together with workers in the informal economy, they find themselves, and to a certain extent their respective families, with no source of income.
Thus, the impact of ECQ on food insecurity is expected to be much worse compared with the 2018 high food price inflation. In the sampled households, 64% have at least one member who is a daily wage earner which translates into P2,638.31 loss in the weekly income. For 14% of the households with two daily wage earners, the estimated loss in weekly income is double at P5,276.62.
There is also the 23% of the households with at least one member in elementary occupation or an informal worker. For this group, the weekly income loss is about P1,572.43. By all indications, this pattern is repeated many times in other cities and municipalities in the country.
The plight of the most vulnerable groups is further exacerbated by the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing in crowded areas where many of them reside. In 2016, the UN estimated that around 43.5% of the urban population in the Philippines are residing in slums characterized by overcrowding with poor ventilation. Meanwhile, there are about 4 physicians per 1,000 people, and for the most vulnerable groups, health insurance provided by the government remains very low. For example, only 8% of informal workers and 6% of senior citizens in the country have PhilHealth coverage (National Demographic and Health Survey, 2017).
While there are compelling reasons to practice physical distancing to abate the spread of COVID-19, the vulnerabilities currently experienced by a significant portion of our population is very much illustrative of social distancing by virtue of their lack of access to the much-needed health and economic resources.
Social connectedness in the time of COVID-19
Now more than ever, as everyone is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need to foster a greater sense of connectedness, though not of the physical kind. Through technology and the power of the internet, there are different modalities to maintain a strong link with the outside world despite the imposed physical isolation needed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
There is much comfort in knowing that one can tap their existing network of friends and family for mutual trust and support. As a final solution appears to be still a long way off, the same level of mutual trust and support should ideally also extend to the representatives of both local and national governments.
At this point, the people do not need further threats to exacerbate the fear and insecurities that they can barely manage. What they actually need is the reassurance that someone is looking after their wellbeing. Such is a fail-safe way to soften the social and economic isolation currently being experienced by the most vulnerable groups in the country.
In short, there is a need for leadership with a high degree of empathic accuracy in understanding, and at the same time, capable of responding well to the plight of the people, most especially the least protected ones. – Rappler.com
Leslie A. Lopez is an Assistant Professor with the Development Studies Program and a Research Associate at the Institute of Philippine Culture, both at the Ateneo de Manila University.