Beyond social distancing to fight COVID-19

In the global South, a military style lockdown, though inevitable given the circumstances, may reinforce prejudices

Updated - April 01, 2020 01:49 am IST

Published - April 01, 2020 12:02 am IST

I agree with Eric Klinenberg’s recent submission to The New York Times that social distancing, advocated by health authorities worldwide, as a means of combating the spread of the coronavirus, can only be a part of firefighting. The rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19 has a lot to do with the fallout of globalisation, including the travel industry, tourism and the neoliberal attack on universal health care. Moreover, unfettered promotion of social distancing can reinforce existing social prejudices driven by different forms of social exclusion.

The Korea example

In illustrating how social distancing actually works in the periphery, I will draw from a few examples from corona-affected countries. The COVID-19 epidemic in South Korea started with the controversial Shincheonji Church of Jesus with a personality cult centred around 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, identified as a messianic saviour. This cult facilitated the transmission of the disease from Wuhan to South Korea because of frequent travel among its followers. Consequently, more than half of all COVID-19 patients at the onset of the epidemic belonged to this religious movement, which accounted for less than 1% of the Korean population.

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Social isolation among new immigrants in Korean cities was incidentally a major incentive for people to join this cult. In this context social distancing was not popular among them due to the simple reason that the movement served as an extended family for many of its members. In this instance, social distancing once successfully introduced may have actually served to contain the epidemic, but it also further stigmatised a religious group already in the margins of Korean society, interfering with disease containment.

Iran became a leading COVID-19 hot spot in West Asia due to a unique set of circumstances. It was compelled to develop ties with China due to economic sanctions imposed by U.S.-led western countries. An Iranian trader who made a business trip to Wuhan was reportedly the very first COVID-19 patient in Iran. The initial hub of disease transmission in Iran was Qom, a popular pilgrimage centre for Shiite Muslims. The next centre was the Iranian Parliament, having strong ties with Qom, the spiritual hub of Iranian society. As many as 23 parliamentarians, comprising 8% of all MPs, were infected with the disease by March 3. Social distancing was contrary to popular forms of social greeting in Iran particularly among the ruling elite. In any case the coronavirus was introduced in Iran through globalisation-triggered international alignment and incubated through political and religious processes.

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Spread in Sri Lanka

The onset of the COVID-19 epidemic in India and Sri Lanka has a lot to do with tourism and labour migration, processes intimately connected with globalisation. Both in India and Sri Lanka, the first cases were reported among foreign tourists from Italy and China, respectively. The tour guides who travelled with the respective tourists and their contacts became the first set of local people exposed to the disease triggering local transmissions. Both Sri Lanka and Kerala in India have large portions of their labour force employed overseas. Returnees from these overseas destinations have contributed to the upsurge in the COVID-19 epidemic in South Asian countries. For instance, among 18 conformed COVID-19 patients in Sri Lanka by March 15 as many as 11 (61%) were Sri Lankan returnees from Italy, a popular destination for Sri Lankan migrant workers from the 1990s.

Thus, imported cases and those directly exposed to them comprise over 90% of all COVID-19 cases detected in Sri Lanka as of March 22. Roughly about 20.5% of confirmed cases are connected with tourism. Nearly 60% of all cases are among Sri Lankan workers returning from abroad and their contacts indicating that exposure to the disease through overseas employment has triggered the epidemic in Sri Lanka. Considering that nearly 50% of the entire caseload in Sri Lanka is among workers returning from Italy, it is important to note that many Sri Lankan workers in Italy work as live-in care givers for elderly people. The spurt of cases of Indian origin lately has led to identification of Chennai as a high risk region in Sri Lanka.

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Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a fallout of globalisation, particularly in the global South. The quarantine and social distancing processes may not be totally effective in so far as these workers and their families are often in between two states, experiencing difficulties at both ends. The workers returning from Italy and South Korea were the first to be sent to quarantine centres in Batticaloa and Kandakadu from March 10. Initially, they resented the mandatory two-week quarantine in a remote location. Both migrant workers and tourist guides already experience discrimination of various kinds because of their occupations and the risks involved. A military style lockdown though inevitable given the circumstances is likely to reinforce the existing prejudices. This clearly shows that we need to think beyond social distancing and address problems of the fallout from globalisation in dealing with the pandemic in the global South. It appears as if the much publicised problems of a run-away world have been finally crystallised in this deadly global epidemic.

Kalinga Tudor Silva is Professor of Sociology at University of Peradeniya. E-mail:

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