Keep your distance: Susanna Lehtinen-Jacks, EASO Public Policy and Public Health Task Force Co-Chair on language during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Keep your distance: Susanna Lehtinen-Jacks, EASO Public Policy and Public Health Task Force Co-Chair on language during the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the past couple of weeks, I – like many others - have been keeping social distance, in order to avoid infection or further spread of COVID-19. I admit that I did not think too much of this terminology before I saw the letter by Wasserman et al. (2020), but having read their letter, it suddenly became obvious to me that there is something strange in the concept social distancing.

These days, many of us have realized more poignantly the importance of being able to meet, see, talk, share ideas and feelings with other people – in other words, social closeness! We need and can have social closeness even if we cannot be very close to each other physically right now.

Wasserman et al. (2020) point out: “…the frequently used term ‘social distancing’ evokes among many, but particularly in vulnerable groups, associations of being distanced, rejected and isolated”, and that is why we should rather use the terms physical distancing and social closeness. Later, I came across an article by Abel and McQueen (2020) emphasizing the importance of social support, especially during difficult times, and suggesting the use of terms spatial distancing and social closeness. Excellent suggestions from both groups of authors to all of us!

As we have seen by now, we are all in the same boat, in that any of us can get infected. Empathy and sympathy help us understand and implement physical or spatial distancing instructions from our health authorities. Instead of social distancing we need loads of emotional and social closeness.

Public health professionals, clinicians and researchers, as well as governments, national health systems, other authorities and media, can all have a remarkable influence on written and spoken language.  As EASO, together with the EASO European Coalition for People Living with Obesity (EPCO) promote the use of people-first language, to reduce bias related to obesity (EASO Secretariat 2016), we in EASO can and should promote the use of terms physical or spatial distancing and social closeness, to avoid and reduce stigmatization related to COVID-19.


Abel T, McQueen D. The COVID-19 pandemic calls for spatial distancing and social closeness: not for social distancing! Int J Public Health 2020 Apr 1:1. doi: 10.1007/s00038-020-01366-7.

EASO Secretariat. People-first language. Viewed at [5 May 2020].

Wasserman D, van der Gaag R, Wise J. Terms ‘physical distancing’ and ‘emotional closeness’ should be used and not ‘social distancing’ when defeating the Covid-19 pandemic. Published as an eLetter in Science in response to an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in Science 2020;367 (6484):1282-1282. Retrieved from [25 April 2 020].

Susanna Lehtinen-Jacks is a University Lecturer at the Unit of Health Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences, Tampere University, Finland. An MD, PhD and Adjunct professor in epidemiology, she is an experienced teacher and researcher in childhood and adolescent obesity. A member of the working and expert groups of the National Obesity Programme 2012–2018 in Finland, Susanna has been a member in the Public Policy and Public Health Task Force (PPPHTF) of EASO for several years, and has represented EASO on the EU Platform for action on diet, physical activity and health. Susanna is co-chair of the PPPHTF, a network of European public health experts and epidemiologists who aim to stimulate European research into and implementation of effective obesity prevention strategies throughout the European Union, through the WHO regional office for Europe, and other professional organizations.


Susanna Lehtinen-Jacks

MD, PhD, Adjunct professor in epidemiology

University lecturer, (Unit of Health Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences,) Tampere University, Tampere, Finland

Co-chair of the EASO public health task force (PTF)