20.03.2020 Feature Article

Social Distancing Or Physical Distancing? A Re-conceptualization To Intensify The Crusade Against COVID-19

Social Distancing Or Physical Distancing? A Re-conceptualization To Intensify The Crusade Against COVID-19
LISTEN MAR 20, 2020

The propensity for the virus to spread largely depends on physical contact, which is mediated by social gatherings. It is in this light that experts have advised national leaders to enforce some form of distancing to minimise the extent to which the virus is spreading.

As I was watching the BBC this evening, the Church of England has just announced that no more than five people will be allowed to attend weddings, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In Ghana, like other nations in the world, churches have been asked to physically close down.

Our Muslims brothers and sisters have also been asked to avoid mass gathering for corporative prayer (salat). Christians should not freak and fret over this, as the idea of ecclesia is not about the physical building, as it is about groups that is enforced through the sharing of orthodoxies that may have implications for orthopraxy. Certainly, with Christianity orthodoxy (mental exercise) is more important than orthopraxy – physical activities. That is why the church contributed to the advancement of science than any other religions in the world.

But the physical contact restrictions create the impression of social distance. Nonetheless, what is happening is not social distancing, as it is about physical distancing. The idea of social distancing is creating an impression among some Christians that they could still gather and worship.

For example, Apostle Kofi Nkrumah Sarkodie, the Head Pastor of the Open Arms Ministries, has been arrested for flouting the ban on public gatherings in the wake of the COVID-19. There are pictures of some individuals at the Miami beach in the United States, defying the other to restrict social gatherings.

I think the confusion about the right concept to use is what is causing some individuals to flout the rule, as the world races for a solution to the pandemic. In this sense, we should propose for physical distancing, as some psychologists are advancing. I think this will be a true rendition of what we seek to achieve. For example, it is a truism that we are already engaging in some form of physical distancing. Since the advent of social media, most of us have become more of virtual beings than social beings.

Last year, I was at a program in my community – Maamobi, where some of the guest speakers unabashedly said they spent more time alone on the internet than with physical engagement. A few years ago, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, an American internet entrepreneur, and philanthropist, who co-founded Facebook, Inc. indicated that he was going to form a virtual community to encourage bonding. This was after he realized that many of us have become virtual beings and are bearing the consequences thereof – positives and negatives.

While we are gregarious beings with the predilection to interact physically, we cannot refute the fact that technology has reconfigured our being and a sense of gathering. Even before the intrusion of COVID-19, some churches were meeting online. We should not pretend that the call for us to go online is strange. In fact, if we read Plato's Republic, we will appreciate the fact that the philosopher-kings were not to be involved in social matters. Indeed, since the publication of Plato's work, we have all become philosopher-kings by cherishing individualism as opposed to socialism. The African concept of Ubuntu – which John S. Mbiti captured as "I am because we are and since we are therefore I am," is fraud with many conceptual difficulties.

It is part of the reasons some African societies detested difference. But how can we make progress if we are all the same and think from the same perspective? What brings about development is thinking and acting differently (within an appreciable convention), which I captured in one of my journalistic pieces as altruistic madness. This difference is not as radical as the one suggested by libertarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Perhaps, Isaiah Berlin's negative freedom and positive freedom is required here.

With this in mind, by deploying the concept of physical distancing, as opposed to social distancing, the trepidation some people are entertaining could be maintained. I understand that what the world is asking for is for us to deepen our online relations. Virtually all universities in the world have gone online, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Cambridge shuts down tomorrow, Friday.

Our lives are being altered for a good cause. We must all, therefore, corporate with our leaders as we seek to minimize the rate of COVID-19 infection. Using the right concept will help people come to terms that they are not being asked to be in a limbo of individualism. But using the wrong concept can cause depression and an imagined or real loneliness.

On this note, the president of Ghana, Nana Addo-Dankwa, must call Prof. Kenneth Agyeman Attafuah, boss for the National Identification Authority, to order, if he has not done so already. He cannot be wiser than all of us. We are asking him to come to terms with the demands of Ghanaians. We want physical distancing, which requires him to stop his men and women from registering people. Lives are at stake. Economies are crumbling. We are likely to reverse to another financial crunch. Ghana is stressed. He should just listen to common sense and halt his men and women.

All said and done, we are still conjoining the two forces available to us to fight the virus. We are deploying faith and science as our greatest tool to correct conspiracies and explore answers to the challenges at hand. While we will soon overcome the virus, it is obvious that our lives – social and economic lives – will never be the same afterwards. We may not have a status quo antebellum! But for now, we can engage in physical distancing, since mild symptoms are contributing to the rapacious spread of the virus.

God help us, as we navigate through a momentous in human history.


Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

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