Social Distancing: Not an option to all

April 7, 2020
Editor(s): Dahye Koo
Writer(s): Sean Reid, Emily Hartley, Anuk Kariyawasam

The practice of social distancing and why it matters right now

As the Coronavirus epidemic continues to trouble the world economy and health systems around the globe, the World Health Organisation has made some recommendations to limit the spread of the virus. It has been established that the infection rate of COVID-19 is extremely high with the number of cases around the world expected to hit one million in the foreseeable future. So far Western countries such as Italy, Spain and the United States have been the most heavily affected outside of China, with a large proportion of cases and deaths occurring in these countries. The countries most affected so far have been developed countries however this is expected to change as the virus spreads at a faster rate in less developed countries such as India and Thailand.

What can be done to limit the spread of COVID-19?

The official advice from the World Health Organisation is to maintain good hygiene, wash your hands often, avoid touching your nose and face and avoid social gatherings. Developed countries around the world have taken this advice further and enacted new regulations for people to practice social distancing. Social distancing, in essence, is keeping physical contact to a minimum where possible. This is achieved by avoiding shaking hands with people, hugs, kisses, etc, staying at home unless absolutely necessary and keeping a minimum distance from others at all times when out in public. So far, these measures have proven effective in countries such as Australia, South Korea and Japan where the infection rate of the COVID-19 has fallen significantly when compared to countries such as the United States. Despite this, the virus still continues to grow at a fast rate and will ultimately keep spreading for at least the foreseeable future. A real cause of concern for the World Health Organisation currently is how the spread of the virus will be controlled in countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia where it is not as practical to enact social distancing rules.

The logistics of having people enact social distancing creates real problems for the governments around the world with Australia, Canada, The United Kingdom, and New Zealand all committing to partial shutdowns of the economy in order to enact social distancing. This involves closing areas that are deemed non-essential such as shops, pubs, cafes, and restaurants. The implications of this are huge for the economy as many people have already lost their jobs. In order to support this policy, governments have put into place wage subsidies for a temporary period of time to artificially increase people’s income. This is not a sustainable policy even for some of the richest countries in the world as it puts extreme pressure on the budget of each country. Looking towards developing countries such as India and Indonesia where there are extremely large populations, shutting down the economy and providing age subsidies are not a viable option.

The ability of developing countries to follow social distancing rules is limited by not only the government’s ability to subsidise the economy for lack of activity under a shutdown but also due to practical reasons in relation to the population densities of developing countries. Comparing the population densities of New York and the Dharavi slum in Mumbai there is a significant difference with New York having around 10,000 people per square kilometre while Dharavi has around 280,000 people per square kilometre. Given the rate that COVID-19 continues to spread in New York, this poses an alarming possibility if the virus were to spread to countries such as India. Just last year it was estimated that in Dharavi there was 1 toilet for every 1440 people, thus suggesting that social distancing can be practiced in places that face problems such as these is an unrealistic solution. Social distancing in places where the population density is over 20 times that of New York remains an extremely impractical and downright impossible solution. Returning to the economic impact of social distancing measures, countries in the Pacific Islands are going to have their economies potentially crippled by social distancing practices that have essentially shut down borders making tourism non-existent. For countries such as the Cook Islands where tourism makes up a large percentage of their GDP, this is a daunting prospect as many people will lose their jobs.

Source CNN

What is the point of Social Distancing?

There have been arguments by conservative commentators around the world such as Andrew Bolt and The Donald that the cost to the economy of shutting down to practice social distancing is too great and we should just operate as normal. This is a flawed argument as even with a 1% mortality rate, allowing 60% of the population to be infected with COVID-19 will guarantee not only thousands of deaths but it will also put great strain on the medical resources of each country. As seen in Italy the hospital system of many countries is not equipped to deal with cases of COVID-19 en masse, as there are simply not enough beds, ICU wards, nurses etc. Therefore, social distancing remains a key factor in slowing down the spread of COVID-19 and essentially “flattening the curve”, that is slowing down the growth rate to a manageable level for hospital systems to be able to cope.

Modeling by governments around the world has detailed the significant positive impacts that social distancing will have on slowing down the spread of the disease. The governments of Australia and Thailand have run numbers that say social distancing will reduce the spread of the disease significantly. The Thailand government has asserted that if social distancing is not practiced, within two weeks the number of cases will rise to over 150,000 from the current figure of around 2000. The Conversation, which is backed by the Grattan Institute, has researched into the practice of social distancing in Australia and claims that at least 80% of the country will need to follow the strict rules and advice in order to overcome the spread of the virus in Australia.

Source The Conversation 

Social Distancing is an effective tool that must be utilised to curb the spread of COVID-19 around the world, allowing hospital systems to cope with the growing number of cases. Despite the effectiveness of social distancing, it is not a practical solution in developing countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia as the population densities of these countries make it impossible. As a result, there are still some serious challenges for the World Health Organisation and governments around the world to work through in regards to the Coronavirus outbreak. Solutions for these problems will require innovative thinking and measures not seen before but the world acting together will make these problems easier to tackle. With the stakes so high there is not much room for error nor time for making these decisions.


Sur, P & Mitra, E. (2020, March). Social distancing is a privilege of the middle class. For India’s slum dwellers, it will be impossible. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/30/india/india-coronavirus-social-distancing-intl-hnk/index.html

Covid-19. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/westernpacific/news/multimedia/infographics/covid-19

Wood, D & Coates B. (2020, March). The coronavirus wage subsidy stimulus package is a move in the right direction–but it has imperfections. Retrieved from  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-31/coronavirus-wage-subsidy-stimulus-business/12104222

Coronavirus Cases. (2020, April). Retrieved from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

Wipatayotin, A. (2020, April). 70% Thais stick to social distancing. Retrieved from https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1891290/70-thais-stick-to-social-distancing

Abi-Habib, M & Yasir, S. (2020, March). For India’s Laborers, Coronavirus Lockdown is an Order to Starve. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/world/asia/coronavirus-india-lockdown.html

Beall, A. (2020, March). Why social distancing might last for some time. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200324-covid-19-how-social-distancing-can-beat-coronavirus

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ, our Partners and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Dahye Koo
Sean Reid
Emily Hartley

Hi everyone! My name is Emily and I am a current penultimate year student studying Bachelor of Commerce with majors in Finance and Economics. As a digest writer at CAINZ, I am able to tie together my childhood passion for writing and the qualitative and quantitative aspects of finance and economics. I am excited to deliver to you a range of articles throughout my time as a writer.

Anuk Kariyawasam