The Other Side Of Social Distancing

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JOHN CHELLADURAI

‘SOCIAL distancing’ has become the phrase of the year, perhaps the decade. An essential practice in the given situation, it has evidently saved a million lives and is likely to save many more. 

The study of human development suggests that human beings tend to overdo things.  Pursuit of wealth, knowledge, fame, power and their means in terms of money, information, tools, and technology… we pursue everything unlimited, because we like them.

Has something similar happened with social distancing?

The government advised citizens to keep a two-metre distance. Some don’t follow it. But those who do (and even those don’t do so for medical safety) have turned it to an infinite distance, which has been quickly institutionalised and normalised. Now, if someone is sick, as relatives or neighbours, we are not to go. Nobody expects us to either, even if one is inclined to inquire into the condition of the ill. 

We hear from across India instances of patients dying all alone in hospitals.  It is almost a ‘let the dead bury their dead’ situation.  Worse, the bereaved family is left to mourn all alone. We let the stranded workers walk their lonely way back home a thousand miles away.  We are seeing increasing instances of depression and anxiety related medical conditions, primarily owing to this distancing. 

As social beings, individual life is inextricably tied to the life of others. Life requires proximity as its wherewithal, be it material goods and resources, social systems or political power and structures.  You have to be within the individual’s reach to be of service to her/him.  Farther the arrangements, the greater the chances of impersonal relationships and hierarchic arrangements and the consequent domination and exploitation.   

Aware of this fundamental, Mahatma Gandhi responded to the predicaments of life with utmost practicality.  He made nonviolence pragmatic by adding in its praxis the principle of ‘optimum’, which means ‘no more, no less’ distancing. A closer analysis of Gandhi’s pursuits would reveal the principle of ‘distance’ codetermining all his conceptualisations and their applications. 

For instance, the concept of swadeshi (neighbourhood reciprocity) talks about economic transaction confined to the local community.  This is to ensure the flow of economic benefit (production, employment) fairly among legitimate stakeholders (people in the locality).  A cluster of villages determined to buy only neighbourhood products would generate enough employment to sustain all the families in it, thereby give rise to economic swaraj (self-rule), was Gandhi’s view. E F Schumacher’s classic ‘Small Is Beautiful’ corroborated it effectively. Let the distance between the producer and consumer be just enough to ensure both parties maintain a reciprocal transaction equitably.  That is the crux of the concept swadeshi.

‘Distance’ as a metaphor also represents ‘measure’: size, intensity, expanse or direction.  One can find them evident in Gandhi’s concepts such as ‘decentralised’ economy, ‘appropriate’ technology (to be in a size and sophistication adoptable to the primary user) and ‘khadi’ (production by masses). So are his other concepts: gramraj (village republic – power within reach – the village – of the people concerned); concentric circular sociopolitical order, communal harmony (comfortable and working nearness with neighbourhood religions and other social sections); nayeetalim (learning the art of inclusive living in immediate language). 

In his satyagraha which emerged as a holistic way of conducting human affairs in a manner both the victor and the vanquished end up equally gaining in life, we find the outcome benefit flowing not unidirectionally but both ways in equal measure.  While being an uncompromising adherent to the Truth, as a pragmatist, he was ever ready, in life, for a compromise with the antagonist; he was quick to walk towards the opponent to meet him/her at the midpoint, where, Gandhi opined, lies the promise of coexistence.

Even in his metaphysical concepts like ‘harmony between body, mind and soul’ (in other words: hand, head and heart) which imply a comprehensive approach to holistic life, one can notice Gandhi employing equidistance: one cannot pursue any of the three ignoring the other two; emancipation, mukti or nirvana lies, Gandhi believed, in the pursuit of all the three evenly.  All these suggest that Gandhi employed the principle of ‘distance’ to optimise the efficacy of his concepts.

Distance is a matter of attitude. Indefinite distance between people amounts to colossal indifference. It would be an anathema to the very life which is essentially social, which also means a cohesive life. Unlimited distancing does not work, not even in the pandemic (the virus has spread anyway). We learn from the life of Gandhi that the principle of optimum, or optimising the gap between any two factors involved in the transactional life of social beings would engender the best possible result. 

‘Safe distancing’, which also means ‘sufficient nearness’, alone would help us keep away from the ills while retaining the warmth of one another as a community, not only in cases like COVID 19, but in every walk of life. The life of Mahatma Gandhi drives this point emphatically.   
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