The Cheat Sheet

The price of social distancing

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on June 18, 2020

Ha, I’m paying so dearly!

All of us have been. But trust me, this ordeal is short-term, and soon we will all be able to get out of our homes and engage in activities such as shopping or jogging. But I’m worried about long-term impacts of social distancing.

What are they?

There are many. But one of the most striking impacts of Covid-19 and the many lockdowns that followed the pandemic outbreak across the globe would be that sociality is now going to be a luxury, especially because societies are now forced to acknowledge a world where people have to co-exist with Covid.

But what exactly happens then?

Social scientists are now predicting a scenario wherein we largely limit physical social interactions and move most exchanges online. A lot of things we had earlier taken for granted would cease to exist, or would come with extra costs. For instance, going to a shopping mall or a cinema would cost you more because the service providers will have to account for safety expenses while billing. And, when you go watch a movie, the theatre owner will have to ensure mandatory vacant spaces, sanitisers, mechanisms to monitor Covid symptoms, etc. In all likelihood, this will have long-lasting impacts on the pricing of products and services.

But that’s a given, right?

Yes. But this situation will introduce a new form of inequality in society. A significant portion of the population, which could afford such services earlier, would not be able to avail them now and will slowly get pushed out of the market for a clutch of similar services. In other words, the most important product in the post-Covid world would be ‘sociality’. People will have to pay to experience sociality. This also means only the rich and healthy would be able to enjoy social experiences in the near future, while the poor and those vulnerable health indicators — like the senior citizens and children — would have to bear the brunt of this Covid-sponsored inequality.


Social scientists are already discussing this scenario worldwide. As archaeologist George M Leader argues in his latest article Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange in the journal Sapiens, humans are wired through millions of years of evolution to be social creatures, and by denying them that experience, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed a wedge in the ‘human journey’. One suggestion that comes up in the discussions on reclaiming the social experience is that governments must step in and ensure that such inequalities are nipped in the bud by providing safe social experience to all citizens. This would call for a new form of reservation, wherein the government provides the weak and vulnerable with safe environments to experience sociality and maintain a healthy profile. That would call for a new attitude to social security in the post-Covid world.

But why is this important? People can stay indoors if need be…

The answer lies in the way we have evolved as humans. The history of human evolution owes a lot to ‘sociality’. Ever since one of our ancestors, living alone inside a cave, decided to form a team with a similar being to hunt, plant and play, sociality has been an integral part of humanity’s progress. Gatherings have moved history. Revolutions, wars, concerts, plays, lectures, street marches — everything anchored on the social. A mass leader stood in front of crowds, spoke to them in flesh and blood and won their hearts. Heroes were made heroes through the endorsements of crowds.

Sigh! We will miss such gatherings going ahead…

Yes. On that cue, Covid-19 has forced us into a reverse mode, speaking from an evolutionary point of view. In a world where social gatherings cannot be taken for granted, how humans will gauge matters like the popularity of people and ideas is an intriguing philosophical question. As an interesting article — The Power of Crowds by Dan Hancox — that appeared in The Guardian recently argues that we have entered a world where “The very sight of a crowd suddenly seemed alarming.” So, any attempt to creatively fine-tune our evolutionary trajectory in the future should start with finding ways and means to reclaim sociality and make the social experience more egalitarian and inclusive.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on June 18, 2020

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