Sociological effects of social distancing | Daily News


Sociological effects of social distancing

Prof. Siri Hettige
Prof. Siri Hettige

If there is one thing the Covid19 Virus has taught us is that we need to hold onto hope. The Corona virus has caused an emptiness in society with people desperate to return to the lives they once knew. Daily News spoke to University of Colombo, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Professor Siri Hettige, to find out his sociological views on the Covid19 lockdown.

The American Actor Robin Williams put it aptly when he said “Medicine, Law, Business, Engineering: These are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But Poetry, Beauty, Romance, Love, these are what we stay alive for”!

Covid19 Pandemic has reduced people to a bare existence, compelling them to be satisfied with their basic necessities and forgoing finer things in life - socializing, enjoyment of going to cinemas, music festivals, exhibitions, sports events, social events, picnics, parties and religious rituals.


“It is these social and cultural activities many people used to look forward to. But social distancing which is an absolute must to protect oneself and others from possible contraction of the Coronavirus is the opposite of what people in all societies have been accustomed to from time immemorial. This is unreal for them and they are waiting for the moment when they can commence their normal lives that accompany some or all of what is mentioned above. So, everyone is looking forward to the day when there is no threat from Covid19 pandemic wherever they live,” said Prof. Hettige.


We know that socialization is as old as human society itself. Living is essentially a social activity. Some people are socially more active than others but there is hardly anyone who loves isolation. It is this reality that shows us that solitary confinement is indeed the biggest punishment meted out to us.

“So, not being able to move around and be in the company of others in the neighborhood, attend the gym, workplace and other public places makes people anxious and frustrated. This is not good for their social and psychiatric wellbeing. So, any prolongation of the pandemic can have a serious negative effect on the quality of life. So, there is a need to identify issues at all levels and explore possibilities for reducing their negative impact.”

The pandemic has denied youngsters the greatest joy in their life which is student life. Time will only tell if it will impede them from that natural transition which is primary and secondary education leading up to tertiary education. Some are denied the chance to pursue overseas education. This is even a time for consternation when it comes to parents. As is well known, the student population spread from kindergarten to university is a very large proportion of the population in most societies and the inability of these children and youth to take part in normal educational activities away from home is a major issue that has no easy and satisfactory solution.

This makes it even more problematic in the case of younger children if adults have to engage in their economic activities away from home.

“So, parents have to make arrangements for children to stay home safely with their needs met. This is not easy and we do not know how parents will manage these issues. On the other hand, when schools and universities reopen when the pandemic is not yet over, the risk of infection will compel authorities to maintain public health precautions like social distancing and sanitary facilities. Given the fact that most students and teachers use public transport to go to schools and many schools have large numbers of students, public health measures have to be carefully planned and implemented. This is a matter for concern as any lapses can have serious negative consequences. On the other hand, the student population cannot be kept away from educational institutions for an indefinite period.”


Graduation is a rite of passage and must be celebrated with your friends. Social distancing is the opposite of what we are used to in our daily lives. As for school children and university students, they go through an important stage in their socialization process that necessitates close interaction with their peers. Having a graduation via the internet is not the best way to leave an educational institute. Social distancing naturally prevents such close interaction but, given the risk involved, there is no choice but to adhere to public health restrictions to avoid the risk. On the other hand, some remedial measures can be devised and implemented after the pandemic to mitigate the negative effects of isolation and severely restricted social interaction during the pandemic.

“When it comes to modern societies, people divide their time between the private domain of their family and the public domain extending beyond immediate family or the household. This is true for most people, irrespective of their social and economic background. But, when the pandemic confined people to the domestic sphere, preventing them from engaging in diverse activities outside the household such as work, socializing with peers, friends and even strangers in public spaces, it is a major change in the long-established living pattern. The abrupt change in this pattern due to the lockdown is something that most people find it difficult to cope with because much of what happens outside the household is also a major source of satisfaction, fulfilment and identity for the individual irrespective of his or her position. So, primary relationships within family are critically important for the wellbeing of people but the network of secondary relationships outside the household has become as important for satisfying social life in modern societies. Disruption of the network of social relations outside the household can also become a major source of anxiety and frustration for many people,” explained Prof. Hettige.

Familial bonds

Familial bonds are intrinsic to happiness. As he pointed out, it is well known that many Sri Lankans migrated overseas over the last several decades looking for employment or permanent residence in many countries around the world. These migrants and their families have been in regular contact with each other over time through frequent travel between Sri Lanka and the host countries. Now the present pandemic has disrupted international travel, making it difficult for the Sri Lankan migrants and their families to maintain close contact by visiting each other. This is no doubt a major source of frustration for family members who are separated from each other. Any prolongation of travel restrictions due to the pandemic can make the situation worse.

Today it is common to see the helpless wandering from house to house begging for money(adhara) and provisions. Some hang around unsure if they will receive help or not. There are those who used to survive on daily wages. What happens to them? And if they cannot manage what will they resort to? Insecurity we know breeds conflict.

Prof. Hettige points out that one of the major adverse impacts of the pandemic is the disruption of economic activities, leading to loss of employment and livelihoods for many people. People without an income naturally become desperate and can be seen moving around looking for work or charity. But some others might resort to economic crimes like theft and burglary as a way of getting what they want. Such developments can create a sense of insecurity in the minds of many people in affected areas. We know that religion is a form of security for many. Sunday sermons at church see pews filled up by devotees. The same can be seen at mosques. We see the same devotion when it comes to Buddhist rituals at temples. For the last two months the lack of these activities certainly must have been stressful.

Religious activities

“Most Sri Lankans actively participate in religious activities and these are no longer possible due to the prevailing situation. On the other hand, they are constantly exposed to health advisories that remind them of the need to take medical advice seriously. Though many people take part in religious rituals hoping for the protection of divine powers, we know media discussions on Covid19 emphasize a medical science perspective on the matter, forcing people to think beyond religion and ritual. This pandemic has affected all the countries across the world to varying degrees. Its impact on countries have varied widely due to diverse conditions and factors. The world is still in the middle of the pandemic so it is too early to talk about what the final outcome would be. When the pandemic is over, it would be possible to do a comprehensive assessment,” pointed out Prof. Hettige.

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