The importance of social distancing

Struggling with social distancing? Try the 'smelly-person' rule.

Keeping a distance from other people is unfamiliar territory for most of us. It feels awkward and unnatural. We’re not sure what to do and on top of this, the goal posts appear to shift daily as we grapple with the changing landscape of this coronavirus pandemic.

Limiting our contact with people will slow down virus transmission and flatten the epidemic curve so that we can reduce the number of cases occurring at the peak of the epidemic. The aim is to lighten demands on the health system when the epidemic is at its peak, so all of those needing help can get it, and we save lives.

Social distancing, more appropriately called physical distancing, is not always straight forward and if you are sometimes unsure, you are not alone. Even though I have experience working in infectious disease prevention and control, I too face moments of indecision translating what I know about social distancing into daily life.

In order to put the theory into practice, we need to adhere to two principles. Firstly, assume everyone we meet has coronavirus, regardless of how they look or who they are. And secondly, also assume that we have coronavirus, and could give it to other people. It’s important we all act as though we are potentially carrying the virus.

I could go on to list all the dos and don’ts of social distancing, but there’s an easier way to understand what you need to do: The smelly-person rule.

I pretend that everyone in the world has not washed for six weeks, including me, and I behave accordingly. In this imaginary world where no one has washed, and everybody smells a bit, I definitely don’t want to be too physically close to anyone - certainly I want to be at least one to two metres away.

I also don’t want to greet anyone with a handshake, a hug, and definitely not a kiss. I want to avoid any meetings I can - there’s nothing worse than being in a room full of people who don’t smell good.

Naturally, in my imagined malodourous world, all activities that bring us into close contact with a lot of smelly unwashed people must be avoided including travelling, cafes, social functions, family gatherings and work meetings.

Remember, distancing ourselves from others protects everybody - particularly the more vulnerable in society.

It is important to be clear that it is close and extended personal contact that increases our risk of transmission. Coming into close proximity to someone incidentally is unlikely to lead to transmission. However, the longer we are in close contact, the greater our risk.

Let’s remember, as many have done in countries most affected by coronavirus – social distancing doesn’t need to mean we lose touch with each other. Creativity and technology can help us stay connected, now more than ever.

And of course, it is essential that we remember that in addition to keeping our distance, good hygiene is one of the most effective things we can do to protect ourselves and others as we navigate this health crisis together.

Media are welcome to re-publish this article with attribution to Associate Professor Hassan Vally, La Trobe University.

Read more COVID-19 opinions and expertise from La Trobe academics here.