Understanding the new lexicon

Friday 20 March 2020

If you suspect that you or a family member has been exposed to COVID-19, phone your GP or the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

Understanding the new lexicon: the difference between physical distancing, social isolation and quarantine

Coronavirus/COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle and our conversations. With the situation rapidly changing, people are feeling uncertain about what measures to implement to stop the spread of COVID-19 to themselves and others.

Below is an explanation of what the news buzz words, ‘physical distancing’, ‘social isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ mean.

Physical distancing

This is for people who have not yet been exposed to the virus. The goal here is to limit human contact as much as possible, in order to prevent the virus’ spread. You should stay away from crowded spaces, cancel any unnecessary in-person engagements and avoid contact with vulnerable people. Try to keep at least 1.5 metres between yourself and others and avoid skin-to-skin contact (such as through handshaking, hugging, kissing etc). Currently, you can still go outside for walks, but avoid spending time with groups of people. Essentially, you want to try and keep interactions to a minimum.

Social isolation and quarantine

For the current purposes, these are similar and are relevant for people who think that they have been exposed to the virus or who have tested positive for the virus. This is also for people who have been overseas in the past 14 days, and for people who have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. You do not need to have symptoms for this to apply to you. At present, the isolation/quarantine timeframe is 14 days, but this could change in the future.

If this is relevant for you, you should avoid direct contact with other people. If you are living with other people, stay in a different room (or be separated as much as possible), use a separate bathroom (if possible), and wear a surgical mask when in the same room as another person. People who do not have an essential need to be in the home, should avoid the home. Stay away from public places such as work, school, childcare, university, gatherings etc. If you need groceries or medicine, ask someone to collect them for you and to drop them off at your front-door. If you live in a private house, you can go into your garden/courtyard, but if you live in an apartment or are staying in a hotel, make sure to wear a surgical mask whenever you are moving through common areas. Currently, if after 14 days you are feeling well, you can resume your normal lifestyle.


To reduce the spread of germs, use household detergent or disinfectant to regularly clean surfaces that are frequently touched – for example, door handles, light switches, kitchen and bathroom areas.

Maintain high hygiene standards:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly;
  • Practise respiratory hygiene by sneezing/coughing into your elbow or a tissue and throwing out the tissue immediately;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth;
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms;
  • Maintain physical distancing;
  • Self-isolate if you begin to feel unwell, even if only experiencing mild symptoms; and,
  • Seek medical advice early if you have a fever, cough or experience breathing difficulties.

What if you are feeling unwell?

Currently, NSW Health is recommending that people with acute, cold, flu-like symptoms who are returned travellers, or who have had contact with a confirmed case, be tested for COVID-19.

Do not make an appointment or attend a GP practice or hospital without informing them first. Phone ahead and let them know of your symptoms and concerns.

If you are feeling sick, but you do not think that you have COVID-19, take reasonable precautions to avoid sharing your germs with others.

Your mental health during these times is important

  • Eat well;
  • Keep hydrated;
  • Get sleep;
  • Maintain connection with friends, family, neighbours, colleagues etc. Set up regular phone/video calls to check in with one another;
  • Keep active – there are a lot of great online exercise, yoga, mental health, mindfulness and meditation resources and applications;
  • Read that book which has been sitting on your shelf for ages;
  • Do some gardening if you feel up to it; Maintain daily structure by putting together a to-do list;
  • Support and be kind to one another.

Importantly, while it can be tempting to obsessively look at your newsfeed and social media to find out the latest information about COVID-19, this will heighten your anxiety. Instead, seek out factual information from reputable sources such as the Australian Government Department of Health or the World Health Organization.

Miriam Wyzenbeek is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and the Law Society of NSW’s Wellbeing Coordinator.