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Coronavirus CSS Blog

Distancing, But Not Socially

Image courtesy of Siouxsie Wiles/Toby Morris/The Spinoff. CC BY-SA

This blog belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. See the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus for more.

How resilience can help cope with the corona pandemic

Research shows that close social ties, personal networks and helping each other are crucial in dealing with severe crises. This includes the current corona crisis. Thus, fighting the virus is about physical and not “social distancing”.


Resilient societies thrive despite facing extreme events because they have social capital at their disposal to absorb damage, respond to challenges and recover quickly. This requires trustful personal interaction between people. To maintain this in a situation like the ongoing corona pandemic, where staying away from each other is decisive, people make use of their adaptive capacity and flexibility. Many examples of this can currently be found in the creative use of digital communication technologies.

Social distancing as universal claim for action

To fight the coronavirus effectively, experts and politicians alike argue that there is a need to decrease the growth rate of infected people down to a level with which health systems are able to cope. To achieve this, governments have taken a series of measures to limit direct physical contact between people.

The keyword, which is most often used to sum up these measures, is “social distancing”. A term that hardly anybody knew just a couple of weeks ago has become an almost universal claim for action. However, words matter. They are essential as they carry a message. In this case, distancing from each other socially is exactly the opposite of what is needed in the current crisis.

Resilient communities keep close social ties

Why is that? In research on resilience, there are only a few universal findings. Resilience can be understood as the capacity of societies or communities to cope with extreme and hazardous events – like a pandemic – and still thrive. One thing that experts do know when it comes to improving resilience is the importance of using and increasing social capital available in communities.

Social capital is best described as the amount of social ties and networks, of mutual trust, embedded in a community. It is the willingness of citizens to cooperate and to support each other. Social capital is essential for the functioning of communities. This holds true in normal situations – but even more so in extraordinary situations.

Work done by Tim Prior and Florian Roth at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich – among many others – has shown this for many years. Their research has demonstrated the importance of building social capital in order to adapt to and respond to unfolding crises in a complex world.

Another example is the work of American resilience expert Daniel Aldrich, who conducted in-depth empirical analyses of the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent Tsunami in March 2011 in Japan. He looked at response and recovery efforts with the help of statistical methods and found that communities with closer social ties had higher survival rates and were able to build back better and quicker than others.

Stay away physically, stay together socially

It is this same Daniel Aldrich who argues for not using the term “social distancing” but “physical distancing” instead as this more appropriately describes the idea behind the aforementioned measures. In his effort to bring about this switch, Aldrich joins an ever-growing number of experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), who specify the way in which people should stay away from each other: to handle the corona crisis successfully, they should not distance themselves from each other socially, but physically.

People actually need to make sure that they do everything they can to stay as close to each other – socially – as possible. It might seem obvious to suggest that mutual trust, support and help is even more important in a crisis than in normal times and that in a situation like the current crisis, it can only be about physical distance.

The interesting fact is that many years of research into resilience have proven this true. Thus, the call to switch from the term “social distancing” to “physical distancing” is backed by scientific evidence.

Digital cohesion in times of a pandemic

How can people stay socially close when they are not allowed to meet in person? Modern communication technologies offer many opportunities. Using them for home office is just one obvious way. People have started to have digital dinners with friends from all over the world. They gather for digital coffee breaks, to meditate together in front of the screen or to discuss the latest episode of their favorite series while watching it on a second screen.

These are examples of people creatively adapting to an unexpected situation. They are indications of what resilience researchers would expect in such circumstances. Although all of this was already possible before the corona crisis, now it just has become more important in order to keep people socially close to each other.

Do not forget analogue cohesion

Staying together socially in order to improve social resilience involves more than digital communication. One of the most vulnerable groups with respect to the coronavirus, the elderly, are still comparably less familiar with new digital means than younger generations. Due to this fact, classical means of communication, like the telephone, also remain important.

And there is more. A couple of days ago, people around the world stood on their balconies at a specific point of the day and applauded for all the unsung heroes working in the health sector who are currently fighting to save as many lives as possible. Participants sometimes stood alone, but they were all united in their effort not to let the crisis overwhelm them.

In a more traditional fashion across Europe, people are placing candles in their windows and many churches are ringing their bells in unison to show solidarity in societies’ fight with the coronavirus.

Resilience shows in many ways

These are examples of resilience at work. They show the creativity, flexibility and adaptive capacities that are characteristic of humans when they are confronted with exceptional situations. These expressions of resilience help people to be both willing and able to endure the situation. They help to preserve their mental and psychological stability.

The bottom line of all of this is that resilience shows in many ways if people pay attention to the fact that they need to distance physically but stay together socially in order to overcome the corona crisis.

The Center for Security Studies (CSS) is investigating the medium and long-term consequences of the corona crisis through two research projects. One project focuses on national and international crisis management. The other addresses the effects of the crisis on international relations and national and international security policy. To find out more, see the CSS special theme page on corona.


About the Author

Benjamin Scharte leads the Risk and Resilience team of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. His research focuses on resilience, critical infrastructure protection and the links between technological and societal solutions to enhance civil security.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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