Physical distancing

Ujamaa tree of life

The “Tree of Life” or “Ujamma” a Makonde term, is carved directly from the ebony wood tree in Tanzania. The outer, original tree bark is sometimes left intact to highlight the work. In general, the tree displays how a typical African village survives by working with nature and by each man supporting one another. The figures: animals, men, women, children, huts, and trees are carved with great detail and vary from tree to tree. The work is exceptional despite the fact that ebony wood is exceedingly dense and very, very hard to carve. Certain trees exhibit a variance in color from light to dark wood which is very attractive. With the ebony tree the further you go from the center core the lighter the wood becomes. These sculptures vary in height from 1 foot to over 6 feet tall. (Photo compliments of Kathleen Norris; text accessed July 18, 2020 at

The Ujamaa tree of life vividly depicts our human interconnectedness and mutual dependence which combine to make physical distancing so difficult for many people to maintain. The term “social distancing” is an unhelpful misnomer. The intent of physical distancing is not to create social space between people. Instead, the intent of physical distancing is to keep people safe by substantially reducing the probability of airborne, including aerosol, transmission of the Covid-19 virus.

The incidence of the Covid-19 virus among the various peoples and nations who comprise the Mekong Delta region of Southeast Asia is the lowest in the world. A partial explanation for the low rate of infection hypothesized by many of the scientists studying the issue, is that residents of the area do not touch one another when greeting or fare welling one another. A person puts their hands together, palm to palm, fingertips upwards, and then bows slightly in a gesture known as namaste. People in Hawaii occasionally used this gesture before the pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, the gesture has become much more common.

As with face coverings (cf. Ethical Musings Facemasks), physical distancing is an exercise in reciprocal altruism. Keeping six feet (roughly two meters) from persons who are not members of one’s household protects those persons from unintentional transmission of the Covid-19 by a person unaware that they have the virus. Unlike facemasks, maintaining physical distance also protects one from receiving the virus from another person who is unaware that they carry the virus. Scientists suspect that a person with the Covid-19 virus may be contagious for a period before developing symptoms or even if the person will develop an asymptomatic case. Of course, this analysis presumes that nobody who has the Covikd-19 virus would intentionally want to infect others.

Until a vaccine becomes widely available, a populace develops herd immunity (unlikely in most geographic areas in view of the virus’ spread to date), or the Covid-19 virus mutates into a less virulent, less lethal form (also seems unlikely), facemasks and physical distancing, along with handwashing/sanitizing, are practical ways to love self and neighbor. They are also practical ways to keep the tree of life strong and healthy. In the words of Moses, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." (Dt 30:19)


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