Why social distancing feels so strange: Mitali Kamath

Guest Column: Mitali Kamath, Senior Strategist at Sideways, writes that we need to unlearn our primal tendency of 'togetherness' to win our fight against COVID-19

e4m by Mitali Kamath
Updated: Jun 10, 2020 9:23 AM

Have you thought twice before you held a friend’s hand who was upset, hugged a sibling because you felt like, cuddled with your loved ones? That’s because, acts of love come naturally to us. We are built to depend on others during ‘bad times’, celebrate together during ‘good times’ and operate better as ‘cooperative societies.’ Humans are wired through years of evolution to be social creatures, and studies across Neuroscience, Psychology suggests that hugging reduces stress, provides comfort, boosts immunity to name a few. That’s what makes this pandemic unusual, because our natural tendency to turn to people for comfort is denied, our typical coping skills of working out or sharing a meal are not permitted in today’s world of physical isolation. 

That’s why it doesn’t matter what phrase we use - ‘Social isolation’, ‘Quarantine’; knowingly distancing ourselves from those we interact with regularly feels unnatural and ‘wrong’. We will need to go against our primal tendency of togetherness and stay apart to win our fight against Covid-19.

 One reality we will need to face even once the lockdown is eased, is our ‘Indian traits” of not respecting one’s private space, standing an inch behind the next person in line, spitting on roads, sharing dabbas is going to be significantly challenged. Keeping distance is not just going to be a way of life, it is going to be the way you show respect for society, care for others and intellect on your part. 

 Our ‘usual ways of life’ is going to change significantly; from how we shop, eat, hail a cab, try on a garment to even pressing the lift buttons. But it is imperative to distinguish between temporarily postponed, accelerated, or disturbed consumption, and newer emerging patterns of behaviour.

 As ‘crowd-gathering’ businesses open up, they will have to innovate, re-design to ensure ‘limited-contact’ environments. Finding the right balance of enticing customers to step outside vs. staying indoors will be a tricky conundrum. The inflection point will be primarily shaped by two key behaviors – reluctance to mingle in crowded places and higher propensity for digital adoption.  


So, how should these brands stay relevant as they go about their business and still ensure their customers feel safe: 

  1. Playing ‘musical chairs’: Airlines, salons, offices will have to re-arrange their seating arrangements adhering to the six-feet distance protocol. Periodically sanitize doorways, chairs, equipment to minimize risk of spreading the virus. 
  1. Entice and Engage: Businesses that thrive on ‘out-of-home’ clientele like fine dining, outdoor activities will need to create exciting alternative experiences that one can’t replicate at home. 
  1. Create virtual alternatives: The fitness business has made prominent reinventions amid Covid-19, by re-creating similar experiences at home through online sessions. Cult.Fit has seen an upsurge in new customer acquisition by creating brand preference with their free Live workouts. 
  1. Use & Dispose: During times when ‘hoarding’ is becoming a norm, brands like Urban Company that are adopting single use, disposable formats will have a ‘consideration and demand’ edge over others. 
  1. Creation of ‘specific hour zones’: The lockdown poses interesting questions for single parents, senior citizens, people without cars – how are they to shop for groceries, use e-payment methods for the first time, carry back supplies for a week, respectively? Pre-fixing time slots for people with ‘special’ constraints would showcase a brand’s humane side. 
  1. Adapt and Evolve: ‘Crowd-gathering’ industries will have to find unique ways to provide comfort to their patrons. Businesses will need to continuously adapt themselves for new opportunities. 

- Movie theatres will have to stagger interval times to minimize inter-mingling of movie watchers.  

-Studios are making movies available for ‘home releases’ enabling one to watch it the same day they’re scheduled for theatrical release. 

- Restaurants and Diners will have to offer reduced menu sizes, take-away parcels and have disposable cutlery to ensure safety. 

- Fitness centers, Gyms will need to sanitize equipment after every usage, request customers to bring their own yoga mats and water bottles. 

- Salons, places of worship would need to limit number of visitors, assign tokens to allow entry as per pre-bookings and confirmations. 

- Advertisers are finding ways of shooting content from their living rooms and yet ensuring that the message or quality isn’t impacted. 

- Live concerts, sporting events are having to put most activities on hold or direct their viewers to an online medium for continued viewership and loyalty. 

While most of our responses to the outside world will undergo significant changes, Yale School of Medicine’s Martinez-Kaigi, says that “fear-based” behavior modification is not proven to be sustainable and after the initial Coronavirus threat has passed, new habits like hand-washing, isolating and hoarding will probably scale back considerably. As the famous saying goes – only time will tell, so let’s wait and watch.

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