Spatial Distancing, Social Nearing

Hubert Murray
5 min readMay 7, 2020

For the past several weeks as the coronavirus has spread throughout the world, social distancing has been generally adopted as a new coinage, recognizable in the admonition for people to keep 6 feet or 2 meters apart, to wear face masks and gloves and, on the flip side, to communicate only electronically on screen, with ‘apps’ to facilitate virtual meetings.

We are being sold a falsehood. What we are being asked to do is physical distancing, not social. Wearing masks, keeping apart from one another, eschewing the hug, the kiss and the handshake are all physical restrictions, not social.

More troubling however, than the inaccurate characterization of this physical estrangement, is the insidious affirmation of a social subversion that has been eroding communal solidarity for decades. We have indeed been practicing “social distancing” for generations, by assets and income, by race and class, and by health and age.

Over the last 30 years the disparity between the haves and have-nots in the United States has steadily increased. As reported on the top 1% of American households now hold more than half of the equity in US private and public companies.

This picture is reinforced in a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center:

· In 2018 the highest-earning 20% of families made more than half of all US income.

· The United States has the highest level of income inequality among the G7 countries.

· Median income for Whites was 64% more than for Blacks in 2018.

Finally, a March 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that while a typical white family in Boston had assets of $247,500 a typical Black family held only $8 of assets. This is not a typographical error.

While assets and income are strong indicators of social inequality, the consequences are revealed in social distance. Social mobility is one of the central orthodoxies of the American Dream. Unfortunately for the myth, numerous recent studies show that the average American is less likely to escape the background of class than his or her European counterparts. At the lower end of the social hierarchy however, the decline of the white working class over the last generation is further illustration of exacerbated social distance.

Life expectancy figures indicate another dimension to social distance in the United States. While overall life expectancy for all Americans is 78.9 years, that for Native Americans (75.06) and Blacks (75.54) is significantly lower than for Whites (79.12). Another, 2016 multi-institutional study, shows significant life expectancy disparities correlated with income and location. Poor men in America can expect to live a shorter life by 15 years than their wealthier counterparts. These determinants are also true of general health. Lower income populations have poor access to health services, lack medical insurance and live in “food deserts”, all contributing to chronic disease and increased vulnerability to viral infection.

As these social distances have been developed over generations they have been brought into sharp relief, in an acute phase, during the coronavirus pandemic. It is no accident that the so-called frontline or essential services, those that involve physical presence on site and increased exposure and risk, employ a disproportionate number of Black, Hispanic, female and low paid workers whose sickness and fatality ratesexacerbate their social distance from desk workers able to work from home. It is the frontline workers who cannot afford not to go to work and who are obliged by their modest incomes to live in higher densities and in smaller dwelling units than the norm, who are further exposed to the inequities of the disease. The top three cities in Massachusetts for coronavirus cases are all communities of color with a high proportion of immigrants, mostly working in service jobs with high exposure. It is not actually true that “we are all in this together”. The prison population in the United States, already the highest per capita worldwide, is also disproportionately composed of people of color (albeit declining in recent years). The incidence of viral infection in US prisons in this latest pandemic is another reflection of the often lethal injustice inflicted on these sections of the population.

These disparities in income, wealth, health and quality of life have already established massive social distance between races and classes in the United States. Social distancing is what we have been practicing since the founding of the Republic. To call upon “social distancing” as a benign technique for mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic is to normalize what are already defining — and debilitating — characteristics of American society.

The social distances between, and even within, groups have over the last generation been exacerbated by the atomization of communal life in the culture of virtual relationships, the belief that life can be lived on the screen, encouraged now by online learning, telemedicine, zoom-rooms and online dating. The phone and the computer in all their manifestations, audio and video, are indeed ways of connecting people, of drawing near, of bringing parties closer to each other whether for business or personal engagement. But without taste, touch and smell these virtual proximities are ethereal, insubstantial, not real and, it can be argued, contribute to a sense of alienation and anomie.

But even these shortcomings of the internet are of academic interest only to the populations of West Virginia and Arkansas, 49th and 50th respectively in access to the internet. It is estimated that 163 million Americans are “not using the internet at broadband speeds” — another vector in exacerbating educational and employment inequity throughout the country.

To develop a more secure public health infrastructure and at the same time to work towards a more just and equitable society, there are two strands to pursue.

Spatial distancing, a protection against infection, needs to be extended as a realistic and practical good for all. So long as essential service workers are at risk, so is the entire society. As a form of social behavior spatial distancing can be imposed from above by government with edicts on face coverings, the size of crowds, audiences and congregations, social and commercial transaction and so on. To mitigate the heavy hand of government, distancing can also be practiced from below in the adoption of cultural mores as an aspect of mutual respect for a collective well-being. A concern here must be the engendering of suspicion and fear of others in the socialization of the very young.

Spatial distancing necessarily places renewed emphasis on social “nearing” as a complementary and countervailing vector, an imperative to reduce and eliminate social disparities endemic to American society since its inception. These ‘savage inequalities’ in education and in the broader social and economic sphere, have been growing ever more egregious since the years of Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman and the neo-liberal campaign against the mediating role of government. Cybernetic interconnection may be part of this social connectivity, but the necessary adjustments, reforming or revolutionary, are deeper and more radical.

The current pandemic, in its worldwide and local dimensions, is exposing epidemiological vulnerabilities and social divisions, raw and unvarnished. While medical research and governmental intervention are attempting to address an acute phase of the disease, the chronic conditions exposed by the crisis are no less urgently calling for our attention. It is the intention of this short essay to clarify just two of the concepts: spatial distancemay be the path towards health security and social nearing a necessary basis for social justice. The two are interdependent, the warp and weft of a healthy and just society.

Hubert Murray May 4th 2020



Hubert Murray

Hubert Murray is an architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.