Rebranding social distancing to physical distancing: calling for a change in the health promotion vocabulary to enhance clear communication during a pandemic

Kristine Sørensen, Orkan Okan, Barbara Kondilis, Diane Levin-Zamir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, the term ‘social distancing’ received immense attention in the mainstream and social media and was embraced by governments as a universal precaution to stem the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Social distancing’ belongs technically to a set of non-pharmaceutical infection control actions intended to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. However, several weeks into the outbreak, scholars discussed whether the term was, in fact, misleading and could be counterproductive. To study the arguments, the study design included (1) analysis of the performance of the concepts ‘social distancing’ and ‘physical distancing’ based on Google Trends (15 February–15 June 2020); (2) analysis of the arguments used in media discussions of ‘social distancing versus physical distancing’ in the period 15 March–15 April 2020, derived from a Google search; and (3) a scientific literature review in PubMed. The study was conducted in English. The trend analysis showed the peak and the decrease of the relative popularity of ‘social distancing’ and ‘physical distancing’ during spring 2020. The thematic analysis of Google sources yielded an overview of arguments based on nine themes with two to five sub-themes reflecting on the misleading concept, the historical perspective, the sociological perspective, the public health perspective, alternative proposals regarding the social and the physical dimensions, the distinction of terms, the political choice, and the need for rebranding. Two papers were included in the scientific literature review, which both stressed the need for a change of terminology. In conclusion, the study emphasizes that the choice of terminology matters when life-saving public health messages are designed. It is therefore recommended to rebrand ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ to enhance clear communication during the current COVID-19 pandemic in order to prepare for future pandemics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-14
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Health Promotion
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • health literacy
  • non-pharmaceutical measures
  • pandemic
  • physical distancing
  • social distancing
  • spatial distancing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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