When should you self-isolate, self-quarantine or social-distance?

covid new

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Gayle Markovitz, Editor, World Economic Forum


  • The difference between self-isolation, self-quarantine and social distancing – among other coronavirus-related terminology.
  • Significant health events can affect language greatly.

There is a raft of language around the coronavirus pandemic, which reflects new situations that require a whole different everyday vocabulary. Beware of confusion, however – not all these terms are what they seem.

Social distancing, refers to creating physical distance between people rather than preventing social connection. On the contrary, it is more important than ever to connect with colleagues, friends and family for emotional support – even if you are physically separated from them. Fortunately, this can happen virtually.

There is a distinction between self-isolation and self-quarantine. The CDC offers a clear definition and protocols.

“Isolation separates sick people with a quarantinable communicable disease from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.”

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A lighter approach is to self-monitor, which includes regularly checking your temperature and watching for signs of a respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, while limiting – but not excluding – interaction with others. Again, the CDC offers useful guidance.

So if you are sick, you self-isolate. If you are at high risk of becoming sick because you were in direct contact with someone who is sick, you self-quarantine. Finally, if you attended an event where someone sitting at the other side of the room later became sick, you self-monitor.

If you are an asymptomatic carrier, you show no signs of illness, yet you can pass on the virus to others. This is to be distinguished from an incubatory carrier, who transmits pathogens immediately following infection but prior to developing symptoms.

And who is “patient zero”? In any given country, this is the first confirmed local case of the disease. Unfortunately, COVID-19 patient zeros can be incubatory or asymptomatic carriers of the pathogens, so tracing them is incredibly difficult.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Which leads to the word, pathogen. Some might refer to pathogens as “nasty bugs” – a useful (but unscientific) umbrella term that includes viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. COVID-19 is the disease resulting from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Since the current outbreak, there has been widespread commentary from epidemiologists, who measure epidemiological outcomes. These are the disease outcomes relative to the population at risk. So when they talk about flattening the curve, they are referring to slowing the spread of the virus through public health measures. Epidemiologists try to predict the outbreak’s peak – when the number of new infections in a single day reaches its highest point – but accuracy is extremely difficult.

Some countries have now imposed lockdowns – an emergency measure that prevents people from leaving or entering an area (or country). It will mean that borders are closed and people are required to stay at home and self-quarantine. A containment zone can be established when a particular area seems to be a COVID-19 hotspot. Large gatherings are barred, but people can still come and go.

In the face of a lockdown, many people have been panic-buying – or stockpiling groceries, masks and hand-sanitizers. While this is dangerous for healthcare workers who need these items most, and unfortunate for the global good if/when it leads to shortages of certain items, it is understandable to want to reasonably prepare for an extended period at home, when illness may prevent you from going shopping.

Coronavirus is not the first pandemic to have swept across the world wreaking havoc and it seems there is precedent for these seismic health events to change cultures and create new language. Novel concepts enter the consciousness and the linguistic frames of reference shift to describe the extraordinary. There is even one instance of an entire national language switching as a result of disease.

In his Biography of the English Language, C.M. Millward describes how after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, French was adopted in England as the official government language. The demographic that mostly spoke French tended to be the aristocracy. When the Black Death wiped out a large proportion of this group, it contributed to the dwindling use of Norman French across the country. English, however, endured. And the rest is history.

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