Social distancing refers to a host of public health measures aimed at reducing social interaction between people based on touch or physical proximity. This can include ‘remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible’ (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2020a).
It is a non-pharmaceutical intervention to slow down the spread of infectious diseases in the communities. It becomes particularly important as a community mitigation strategy before vaccines or drugs become widely available (CDC, 2020b). It is estimated that without social distancing measures in place, a COVID-19 positive person can infect 406 persons in 30 days. If social distancing measures are in place and social exposure is reduced by 75 per cent, then an infected person can spread the infection to only 2.5 more persons at the end of 30 days (Lu, 2020).
As COVID-19 spread in India, social distancing guidelines were issued by the union and state governments. The union government has proposed, inter alia, closure of all educational establishments (e.g., schools and universities), gyms, museums, cultural and social centres, swimming pools and theatres; postponement of examinations; encouraging employees in the private sector to work from home; conducting meetings via video conferencing facility, where possible; maintaining distance of 1 metre between tables in restaurants, between persons in mass gatherings, customers in shops, etc.; restricting planned weddings to a limited gathering; and the like (Government of India, undated a). The state government in Delhi banned ‘religious, social, cultural and political gatherings as well as protests comprising more than 50 people’ till 31 March 2020 (Times of India, 2020).
Various other states issued advisories on social distancing. Soon after, countrywide lockdowns were enforced to limit the spread of the disease. As on date, India is under its third lockdown. The first was a ‘Janata Curfew’ observed on 22 March 2020. The second lockdown was for a 3-week period with effect from 25 March 2020. It was further extended till 3 May 2020. Limited activities were permitted during the lockdowns. Public transportation remained closed during this period, as also educational institutions. Only specific industrial and commercial activities and hospitality services were allowed to function. Cinema halls, malls, shopping complexes and other public places were shut down. Gatherings were disallowed. These included all ‘social/political/sports/entertainment/academic/cultural/religious functions/other gatherings’. Places of worship were closed for the public. Funerals could be attended by a maximum of 20 people (Government of India, 2020). The rules are being eased gradually.
At the time of writing this article, standalone shops have been allowed to be open subject to the final decision of the respective state governments and union territories. They shall function at 50 per cent of their workforce. Social distancing has to be practised and masks have to be worn. Shops shall, however, remain closed in COVID-19 hotspots and containment zones (Economic Times, 2020, April 25). In the state of Uttar Pradesh, there has been a ban on public gatherings till 30 June 2020 (Business Standard, 2020).
Thus, the lockdowns run concurrently to the social distancing guidelines. Guidelines on social distancing are advisory in nature. Lockdowns, in contrast, are enforced by the state. Lockdowns are akin to fighting a fire. They help contain the spread of COVID-19 and limit it to areas by halting activities. They also boost compliance with social distancing guidelines, especially in public places. However, continuing with lockdowns for a long time would be ruinous to a country and its economy. COVID-19 is expected to last for years (Kissler et al., 2020). Social distancing measures, which are voluntary in nature, can continue and shall help in limiting the spread of the disease. It has been projected that prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary till 2022 to limit the damage due to COVID-19