Importance of density in daily life

Updated: May 19, 2020, 06:59 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

So human social distancing saves lives. But lack of animal social distancing is what helped create the coronavirus in the first place

Just like us, our animals are standing too close together. Pic/Getty Images
Just like us, our animals are standing too close together. Pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathToday I saw the social distancing circles. America is re-opening, daring the virus to do its worst. Someone had marked widely spaced circles about eight feet in diameter all over a park. It was a picture of a Sunday from the future — a park full of families picnicking happily within their tight social spaces.

It's a new world. Every alternate seat in waiting rooms is empty, extra kerning has been applied to human beings in queues, romantic dinners for two are eaten at virus-free distance with masked and gloved waiters. Buses drive at half full, trains with alternate berths unoccupied, restaurant tables have plastic partitions between them.

In no time at all, we have slipped into a world of Lakshman rekhas. Distance yourself from your neighbour, make room for an invisible person left and right of you. Stand apart or die.

Density is on my mind today. The human excuse for crowding, whether in buses, highways, trains or planes, has always been that there are too many humans (7.8 billion) and not enough space. Countries like India and China, with populous cities like Mumbai and Beijing, get the worst of the crowding and its consequences — traffic jams, road rage, crowded slums, migrant workers living nine and ten to a room, extreme pollution — and wildfire epidemics.
So the virus has taught us — crowds are bad for your health. I will fill the air between you, the virus says, and even god won't save you if you're less than six feet apart.

Proxemics is the concept of personal space, a phrase introduced in 1966 by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Personal space is like a bubble around you that your body regards as its territory. The space varies from culture to culture, and species to species — an Indian or a Japanese would probably have a smaller personal space than a nomad on the Mongolian steppes. A tiger needs 60 to 100 sq kms.

Intimate distance for humans ranges from touching distance to about 45 cms and is occupied by near and dear ones such as lovers, children and pets. Personal distance begins at arm's length, or around 45 cms from the person and ends at about 120 cms. This is the space for friends and colleagues. Social distance ranges from 120 to 245 cms and is reserved for strangers and new acquaintances. Six feet.

We now stand at stranger distance from each other.

How are our chickens doing, social distance-wise? And cows? Pigs? Sheep? All the animals we eat? It's not a stupid question. If germs spread between humans when they're too close, what happens when the animals we butcher and eat are squeezed together, as they are in the factories where they are farmed? Do viruses jump between them too? They do. This is how pandemics start.

The news is bad. Thanks to your love of reshmi kebabs, chicken are being mass manufactured in dense hatcheries, each bird on space barely the size of an A4 sized sheet of paper. The recommended space is 4 feet. Pigs are kept in enclosures just wide enough for their bodies. Cows live shank to shank packed inside concrete stables their whole life, never seeing the green of a pasture.

Why is this a problem? Think of picture postcards of old, when you saw green countrysides dotted with grazing Guernseys and Herefords. Cows didn't bump into each other — animal social distancing was always the norm. A virus in one animal could not jump to another, mutating and evolving each time. Now, thanks to our gourmet lifestyles, virus are having an orgy of random mutation and evolution.

Just like us, our animals are standing too close together. COVID-19 is only the first of many pandemics on the menu. Last year, chicken, pigs, cows and sheep yielded us 320 million tonnes of meat. By 2050, that number will have doubled to 640 million tonnes.

My friend Sugata Mitra, TED prize winner of 2013 and the man behind the school in the cloud revolution, spends his quarantine doing useless and impractical calculations. If you divide earth's 24,642,757 square miles of habitable land by its population of 7.8 billion, he says, after adjusting for forests, mountain peaks, malls, highways, national parks and factories, it turns out there's enough liveable land on earth for each human being to be given 15,000 square metres of it.

That's too much, reckons Mitra. A human being with only 20 x 20 metres of land could do very well indeed, with a decent room, a garden with a pond and enough space for some animals, and also grow rice, some vegetables, fruits and trees. Altogether that would be 2.4 trillion square metres, or 2 million square kilometres. Imagine a country 2,400 kms x 1,000 kms.

That would be an area just a little larger than Mexico.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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