Social distancing, or physical distancing is a set of non-pharmaceutical interventions or measures taken to prevent the spread of a contagious disease by maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other.
- Social distancing has become the primary strategy to contain the coronavirus outbreak, with countries such as Italy enforcing complete restrictions, and others like India issuing a range of advisories on avoiding non-essential contact, and restricting large gatherings and events. Social media is also abuzz about how to avoid boredom at home. However, there are a variety of occupations, mostly informal, which involve acute social contact and are still running full swing around us. Consider, for instance, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers, staff in private buses, barbers, janitorial staff, lift operators, traders in wholesale markets, street food vendors, construction workers, loading and unloading workers, sex workers, garment factory workers, and so on. For these workers, social distancing is contradictory to the very nature of the job. Wishing to keep a ‘safe distance’ from people by staying at home would mean losing income, perhaps the job altogether. There are three key dimensions involved – health, income and employment. It is possible for some, such as tech workers, to take health precautions (social distancing), receive income as paid sick leave and still be able to retain their jobs. The experiences in informal employment are mixed. Some, such as domestic workers or home-based workers, may be able to stay at home and lose income but with some marginal assurance of retaining their jobs. Others may go out and earn, retaining their jobs but risking their health. While tech workers and other white-collar professionals enjoy a ‘win-all’ with health, income and employment, there are large swathes within the informal workforce who face a ‘lose-all’ on all three fronts. Win-alls constitute a small privileged minority of the workforce and would lose little. However, the health-income-employment triple insecurity faced by the lose-alls grows exponentially as they live in densely-populated urban neighbourhoods where diseases spread much faster, generating further income losses and job uncertainties.
- The government’s advisories about restricting social contact are indeed important but such measures are economically risky for so many who face a choice between the devil and the deep-sea. Social distancing is impractical for the tens of millions without social security.