Physical distancing and healthy spacing… without disconnecting

Claire Sauvage-Mar is BC Healthy Communities’ former Grants & Engagement Coordinator. 

It seems like until the beginning of March, ‘social isolation’ was a term very few of us in B.C. knew of, confined to the halls of academia or public health. The ideas of ‘self-isolating’, ‘self-monitoring’ and ‘social distancing’ were basically unknown, along with any of the other terms that have emerged to describe willingly staying away from other people.

That was then.

Today, life seems topsy-turvy. The way we interact is shifting, since we now know that the best way to slow the spread of the virus is to limit physical contact with others in order to ‘flatten the curve.’ There is no question that physical distance and self-isolation measures are needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. Meanwhile, anxiety is growing around the province (and the world) about protecting our most vulnerable community members, weathering a major economic shock as businesses shutter and jobs are lost, and providing basic supplies for our families.

BC Healthy Communities is thinking about tomorrow, and the tomorrows for the communities we serve around the province. Even at this time of physical distancing, our organization is concerned about not only how the ongoing spread of the virus will impact our physical health, but how reduced opportunities for social connection will impact our mental health as social creatures.1

It’s well-established that social isolation or loneliness has a devastating impact on individual and community health, on par with physical inactivity, obesity and lack of access to health care.2 We also know that isolations and quarantines can result in symptoms including depression, poor concentration and indecisiveness, deteriorating work performance and reluctance to work, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).3 To be perfectly open: BCHC’s staff is recognizing some of this in our own families and in ourselves.

So how do we use a wide-angle lens to appreciate the current need for physical distancing without social disconnection?

One way is to continue informing ourselves. Kate Mulligan of the Ontario Alliance on Healthier Communities gave a great CBC interview on social connection during a time of physical distancing, and why it’s so important to distinguish between the two. Mulligan said Canadians should be aware of the potential negative health effects of self-isolating.

“We know a fair bit from other quarantines in the past. Under SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] quarantines, for example, people experienced symptoms that included anxiety, confusion, irritability, anger, low mood. These are all pretty normal and predictable reactions and it’s okay to have them,” said Mulligan, who is also an associate professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “But I think it’s really important to note the more people you have to talk to, the less severe those symptoms will be… people with denser social networks also have fewer long-term health impacts.”

“In looking out for somebody else, there are a lot of health benefits for you as well,” Mulligan continues. “So if you’re in a position to offer help to a neighbour, an elder, someone who’s a caregiver or maybe a frontline health provider who is under strain, or somebody who’s in one of those at-risk groups… if you provide some help and support, even just a few words of kindness, you’re going to feel a lot better and healthier too.”

Another way to keep our connection to one another is through appreciating—and possibly even emulating—the heartwarming acts of humanity and ingenuity we’ve seen from around the world. In Spain, a fitness instructor is keeping their apartment block healthy with a rooftop workout. People are considering how to indigenize this experience. Musicians of all stripes are holding virtual concerts from England to China. These examples are showing how maintaining healthy distances is different than avoiding human connection. We’re sure more and more of these examples will continue to surface at the grassroots level, and we’ll continue sharing them on the BC Healthy Communities Facebook and Twitter channels.

In order to support local governments to plan for a connected community, even as we physically distance ourselves, BC Healthy Communities is continuing to offer a grant stream with the objective of enhancing peoples’ sense of belonging. For more information, visit or contact


1.  Varnum, P. (2020). Managing mental health during coronavirus – experts around the world share insights. World Economic Forum.

2. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, et al. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(2):227–237.

3. Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet395(10227), 912–920.

Author Credit: Claire Sauvage-Mar

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