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Coronavirus redefines concept of personal space all over the world

The safe space standards reveal how closely humans positioned themselves before.

Published Mar 18, 2020 02:36pm

Social distancing could qualify as an oxymoron in Italy, where walking arm-in-arm with friends, kissing neighbours in greeting and patting the heads of babies are part of the demonstrative culture.

But the coronavirus has rapidly redefined the concept of respecting personal space for tactile Italians, as well as for South Koreans, Filipinos, Americans, Spaniards and citizens of many other crowded parts of the world.

Whether acting under government orders or following basic public health advice, people are putting distance between themselves to keep the coronavirus away. The new rules of engagement call for maintaining a gap of one to two meters (or three to six feet) to prevent possible exposure when an infected individual coughs or speaks.

Customers make a line with the shopping carts at a New York retail store on March 16, 2020. — AP
Customers make a line with the shopping carts at a New York retail store on March 16, 2020. — AP

COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms in most of those infected, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or people with existing health problems. The vast majority of those infected recover.

The reset norm for an acceptable degree of separation became visible evidence of the pandemic’s reach as schools, shopping malls and sports venues closed and opportunities for public encounters dwindled. Outside a gun shop in California, a post office in Hungary and a supermarket in Manila, lines lengthened as customers queued up at more or less proper intervals.

Practising social distancing at first created confusion among shoppers waiting at a supermarket in Madrid. Some harsh exchanges ensued. But customers soon learned that if they wanted their groceries, they needed to fall into line.

Pastors wearing face masks attend a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea on March 15, 2020. — AP
Pastors wearing face masks attend a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea on March 15, 2020. — AP

The safe space standards also reveal how closely humans positioned themselves before. Pastors at a church in Seoul had room to spread out in empty pews after deciding to conduct Sunday services online. Journalists at a news conference in Berlin sat in chairs spaced away from one another.

A nationwide decree that took effect in Italy last week obliges people to stay at least one meter (about three feet) apart. Overnight, habits of a lifetime and of an entire society were turned upside down.

In a country where waiting your turn often equates to elbowing your way to the front of an undisciplined pack, Italians dutifully lined up with breaks in between — one meter, two meters, sometimes standing across the street from each other to keep stores uncrowded and themselves from getting COVID-19.

People keep their distance as they queue up in front of a post office in Debrecen, Hungary on March 16, 2020. — AP
People keep their distance as they queue up in front of a post office in Debrecen, Hungary on March 16, 2020. — AP

Shopkeepers whipped out measuring tapes.

“I have seen a lot of discipline, solidarity and collaboration, and everybody understands that the first that falls will pull the others with him,” said Piero Emilio Vincenzi, owner of an appliance store near the Vatican.

Enza Garzia, 79, left, talks at a distance with Paola Albano, in central Rome on March 11, 2020. — AP
Enza Garzia, 79, left, talks at a distance with Paola Albano, in central Rome on March 11, 2020. — AP

A supermarket cashier waits for costumers behind a makeshift plastic curtain as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 16, 2020. — AP
A supermarket cashier waits for costumers behind a makeshift plastic curtain as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 16, 2020. — AP

Residents line outside a supermarket in Manila, Philippines, while the government implements a localized quarantine as a precautionary measure against the spread of the new coronavirus on March 17, 2020. — AP
Residents line outside a supermarket in Manila, Philippines, while the government implements a localized quarantine as a precautionary measure against the spread of the new coronavirus on March 17, 2020. — AP

Residents step on measured tape placed outside a supermarket to practice social distancing as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Metro Manila, Philippines on March 17, 2020. — AP
Residents step on measured tape placed outside a supermarket to practice social distancing as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Metro Manila, Philippines on March 17, 2020. — AP

People wear masks as they line up to enter a pharmacy, in Rome on March 16, 2020. — AP
People wear masks as they line up to enter a pharmacy, in Rome on March 16, 2020. — AP

People queue outside a bakery in the rain, in Pamplona, northern Spain on  March 16, 2020. — AP
People queue outside a bakery in the rain, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 16, 2020. — AP

People line up at a supermarket, in Paris on March 17, 2020.— AP
People line up at a supermarket, in Paris on March 17, 2020.— AP

Customers make a line with shopping carts at a local retail store on March 16, 2020 in New York.— AP
Customers make a line with shopping carts at a local retail store on March 16, 2020 in New York.— AP

People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif on March 15, 2020. — AP
People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif on March 15, 2020. — AP

A line of people waiting to buy supplies amid coronavirus fears snakes through a parking lot at a Costco on March 14, 2020, in Las Vegas. — AP
A line of people waiting to buy supplies amid coronavirus fears snakes through a parking lot at a Costco on March 14, 2020, in Las Vegas. — AP

People line up to enter in a shop to buy supplies in Barcelona, Spain on March 17, 2020. — AP
People line up to enter in a shop to buy supplies in Barcelona, Spain on March 17, 2020. — AP

People line up to enter a shop to buy supplies in Barcelona, Spain on March 17, 2020. — AP
People line up to enter a shop to buy supplies in Barcelona, Spain on March 17, 2020. — AP

People wait in line to vote for local elections on March 15, 2020, in Paris. — AP
People wait in line to vote for local elections on March 15, 2020, in Paris. — AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus, where journalists sit spread out, at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany on March 16, 2020. — AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus, where journalists sit spread out, at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany on March 16, 2020. — AP