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An Expat’s Observation: Challenges of Social Distancing in Communal Cultures

Virus spelt using bronze colored pills on a black background
Miguel A Padrinan / Pexels

We are asking the world to practice social distancing. It is an effort to save lives in the wake of this infectious disease outbreak (#COVID19) or any potential future one. But have we considered that all societies and cultures do not know or understand this concept?

In many communal-based cultures, when an emergency, tragedy, or significant illness occurs, the whole family and community rush in to help, calm, and console each other. The come together approach is more instinct than staying apart. Thus, in regions of the world, like many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America, it is the natural, cultural response. In more westernized locations like parts of North America and Europe, they would be more apt to have practices resembling a mild form of #socialdistancing. Thus an individual grasping this concept would be a bit easier and quicker. However, even in westernized places, it is still a struggle.

As an expat, I have lived in many places and in one now, where the mere concept of social distancing is foreign. It is as foreign as speaking another language that is heard but not understood. Ahh, yes, we have created infographics and videos to help everyone understand, including some in native languages and dialects. However, it can and will take more than translation for the concept to resonate. So, in #communalcultures and societies, it will take more to instill and implement this life-saving strategy for this or any other rapid spreading infectious disease.

Again, the information can be heard and viewed but not completely understood. It goes a bit deeper. We are asking people to change their mindset. Based on a study published 2009 European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes between 18 to 254 days for an individual to form a new habit (1). Additionally, the study also noted that it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic (2). However, we do not have 66 days to change a person’s mindset and habits as immediate action is needed to save lives and manage the virus. As such, you can say these populations could become more susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.

In the more #communalsocieties around the world, this notion of social distancing will be a challenge. In many cultures, it is typical for a generational family or extended family to live in the same home or compound. It is rude or disrespectful to stand when speaking with elders or people your senior in the home or office setting. We are asking societies and culture to flip their mindset overnight without teaching them how to do so. Social distancing could be viewed as isolation or abandoning the family. Again, how are we planning to mitigate these rooted cultural values?

I am not a cultural psychologist or anthropologist; thus, I am not sure how we can develop a way forward that will cause less impact on loss of life. However, I know as an expat and an educator, it was my responsibility to raise awareness and the question. So the experts, like those I mention, can share their thoughts and help in the process.

The best way to think of social distancing is the space (i.e., distance) between you and another person. The recommended space or gap is six feet (182.88 cms). Social distancing does not mean withdrawal or going into complete isolation with no connection or communication with loved ones or people close to you.

So, we continue to follow the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. Their advice is to avoid or cancel any gatherings of 10 or more people for the next several weeks, to suppress the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. With the closing of schools, libraries, universities, places of worship, and canceled sporting and cultural events, more people are home. These measures will not succeed if the crowds have relocated to home or local community spots which are common in communal societies.

In countries and cultures where large family and community gatherings often occur without a special occasion, social distancing can create misunderstandings and foster miscommunication. The concept goes against values, beliefs and, in many cases, deep-rooted expectations of what is respectful within homes or communities towards elders. They have to be educated to change traditions and expectations, thus altering their practices. But to be frank, time is not on our side for such education because while we are teaching and trying to persuade change. People are becoming ill or, even worse, dying.

So what will it take to make this work? I do not have the answer, but only some personal thoughts. We each have to take individual responsibility. We have to practice each one, teach one. It will require one-on-one conversations with a personal demonstration of what is a safe distance during physical interactions. It will require saying “no” to family and friends when they offer to gather for lunch, dinner, or coffee. It means to explain to elders and older respected community members that this is how we keep them safe and alive.

Hand Sanitizer boottle and a mask
Tai S. Captures / Unsplash

It does indeed mean limiting your contact with people. The fewer people you mingle with, the less chance of you or them getting the virus. The limit aims to minimize activities such as public transportation. However, in places where the only source of transport for the majority of inhabitants is public transport, which is a crowded environment, the level of distancing is almost impossible. Public transport such as buses, trains, and minivans are the only option to feed some families, make a living and move about for life’s necessities. When you disrupt this movement, especially in some developing nations, the economy could collapse; poverty can increase, and families may not have food to eat. So there may be the need to create staggered shifts at work where possible, add more buses on high traffic routes, work from home for those who can, or use some level of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the journey. Here is where the problem is the most challenging. I make this observation with no idea of a creative solution.

“Every single reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population,” said Dr. Gerardo Chowell, chair of population health sciences at Georgia State University (3).

Dr. Chowell is factual, and it takes everyone’s efforts to use this to “flatten the curve” and keep everyone safe. However, in communal cultures, this could create a new set of social dynamics with families or other types of relationships. Yes, unfortunately, it means family and friends who do not live in the same dwelling should not visit each other.

However, for extended families and tight-knit communities, social distancing can or will be challenging to practice when a family of 6 or 8 share a small living quarter. As such, there is not enough space to practice the recommended distancing. If one member of the family displays any symptoms, it becomes hard to isolate them at home without displacing everyone else. Thus, it puts persons close by at a higher risk. It is an unfortunate reality of households around the world.

Social Distancing Photo display handd with phone
Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

In some cases, the young people in the home will try to visit friends to get away from the crowded nature of their home. Our young people in communal cultures are no different than young adults anywhere else. They enjoy hanging out with their friends. However, their exposure can put those in their life at risk. It can be harmful to older parents, grandparents, and family or friends with health conditions. Our youth can show love, care, and compassion by staying home and allowing your elders to remain healthy. By the way, just because you are young and seemingly healthy and at a lower risk does not mean you cannot be susceptible. Please don’t do it if it is not essential; think of the greater good.

If we ignore the guidance on social distancing, we will put ourselves and everyone else at a much higher risk. The experts providing the guidelines are aware that social distancing is hard for young adults who usually gather in groups. However, if they can reduce the number of group gatherings, as well as the number of people in the group setting, it will help.

Another aspect of social distancing that will be hard on communal and underprivileged societies is our day laborers and lower-income hourly workers. In regions of the world, these groups of people are rural to urban migrants who often live in small multi-person accommodations for financial reasons. It is a group of people such as street food or goods vendors, office, home or street cleaners, grocery baggers, and such. Many of which do not have the luxury of social distancing unless they return to their rural home. Sometimes even if they did, the situation in their village or town is too congested, and this social distancing concept will not work. The second part of this is that many of these workers live on earnings from each day; they do not have extra. So when the streets on which they work are empty, they have no income. They are now without money for rent and food. Hunger and dehydration start to develop, in addition to their risk of contracting the virus. They become high risk and vulnerable. Again, what can we do differently with this concept to avoid losing this often overlooked part of our population?

Image of a planet in space with virus tentacles
Miroslava Chrienova / Pixabay

As we are learning, this virus does not differentiate between privileged or underprivileged, thus social distancing matters to everyone’s survival. Therefore, no matter who you are, keep your trips outside your home to essential needs (food, medication, work if required, and supplies). Keep your distance, and politely ask others to do the same. It is challenging, but these are some of the best ways to help save the members of your family. These are some strategies used to save lives in the past. Because of them, there was a death reduction during the 1918 Spanish flu or even more recently as SARS.

I am an expat who is looking to the public health practitioners, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists to help find new and innovative ways. We must press towards helping our communal cultures and societies weather, survive, and minimize the impact of the loss of lives in these communities. What can we do or change in the social distance model to help different sectors of our global population?

I call on the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and other relevant experts to augment and implement the social distancing model to work better for communal cultures and societies, especially to help minimize loss of life.

Since we do not have an idea of how long we need to practice social distancing, the social-cultural impact on communal communities will take years to reveal its impact. The longer social distancing is a daily practice that goes beyond the timeframe for new habit creation; chances are, the communal culture will retain some of the practice long-term. It could creep into their daily routine as part of a new normal. What will be the impact on each generation? Are children going to retain more, and the elders ease back into their customary practices? Will a relationship gap develop in a once close-knit extended family? Only time will tell, and right now, our main concern is keeping our distance so we can save our lives and those close to us. So it could be a few weeks or a few months, but we already know keeping distance matters.


(1) - Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

(2) - Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

(3) - Human Resources Online. How social distancing helps safeguard your workplace from coronavirus. (2020). Retrieved from


#pandemic #covid19 #socialdistancing #coronavirus #virus #infectiousdiseases #communalcultures #communalsocieties #familylife #developingnations #WHO #CDC #publichealthpractitioners #culturalanthropologists #sociologist #psychologist #anthropologist #NOVA #communitytrauma #expat #expatlife #lifeabraod #livingoverseas #expatobservation #roseappleglobal

If this story caught your attention and you would like to help our communal cultures and societies decrease their infection rate improve their survival rate, then please comment as well as share it on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or with others. Thank you!

-- Karla A. Fraser, An Expat’s Observation: Challenges of Social Distancing in Communal Cultures, Roseapple Global, LLC


At Roseapple Global, we provide specialized services in expat career coaching and guidance for individuals or groups.  We also offer to consult for the administrative and operational areas of campus/student life and student services units at higher education institutions internationally. Contact Us

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