The world remains paralyzed in fear of the novel virus that affects multiple countries around the globe. Since it emerged in China in December, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 is over 10 times higher than the 8,100 known to have been infected by SARS.
It is now spreading fast, with the number of cases in some countries doubling every week, and many fear that it may become the most serious pandemic since Spanish flu in 1918-19.
As a result, experts are worried about the so-called exponential curve. If the number of infected individuals doubles every three days, by May, about a hundred million Americans will be positive for the virus.
Epidemiologists termed the concept of slowing the virus’s spread “flattening the curve”, and it has become widespread on social media.
Even though many experts doubted its potential benefits when China tried to flatten the curve of the outbreak, it locked down tens of millions of people, and it eventually slowed the spread of the virus.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says:
“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down. That would have less people infected. That would ultimately have less deaths. You do that by trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”
Michael Mina, associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explains:
“I think the whole notion of flattening the curve is to slow things down so that this doesn’t hit us like a brick wall. It’s really all borne out of the risk of our health care infrastructure pulling apart at the seams if the virus spreads too quickly and too many people start showing up at the emergency room at any given time.”
Public health professionals claim that if people limit their movement and practice “social distancing”, the can flatten the curve.
Since there are no vaccines or drugs for COVID-19, these measures, combined with good hygiene, isolation of suspected cases, the closure of schools, and the cancellation of large events are believed to be able to reduce transmission.
If it doesn’t, COVID-19 will continue to spread exponentially for months.
We will simulate the spread of a fake disease, named simulitis, through a population to understand things better. Whenever an infected person with simulitis comes into contact with a healthy person, the healthy person gets infected too.
Simulitis does not take long to spread in a population of five people. Yet, in real life, people recover, so they cannot transmit the virus, not become infected again.
In a town of 200 people, with one person infected, the number of people rises rapidly, and then gradually declines as people recover.
Yet, in a country with millions of people, like the U.S. the curve cannot slow easily nor fast. Therefore, we need to slow the spread before it infects a larger portion of the American population.
We can attempt to slow simulitis via forced quarantine, but it seems that it is impossible to completely seal off the sick from the healthy.
Leana Wen, the former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, reminded of the impracticalities of forced quarantines, mentioning that many people “work in the city and live in neighboring counties”, and they cannot be separated from their families, nor we can block all roads.
Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, believes that “kinds of lockdowns are very rare and never effective” too.
There is still hope that the outbreak can be slowed down. Health officials recommended staying home, avoiding public gatherings, and keeping a distance from other people.
Yet, many people cannot stay at home, probably due to various obligations, and they have an increased risk of getting the virus and spreading it.
This is what’s going to happen if a quarter of the population does not adopt “social distancing”, and the other three quarters do. More social distancing keeps more people healthy.
Drew Harris, a population health researcher and assistant professor at The Thomas Jefferson University College of Public Health, explained:
“We control the desire to be in public spaces by closing down public spaces. Italy is closing all of its restaurants. China is closing everything, and we are closing things now, too. Reducing the opportunities for gathering helps folks social distance.”
Let’s now see what happens when just one of every eight people moves.
All four simulations( a free-for-all, an attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing, and extensive social distancing) were random, so if you reread the article later, you will get different results.
Yet, moderate social distancing will still be more efficient than attempted quarantine, and extensive social distancing will be the best option. Note that this simulation is oversimplified that real-life COVID-19 situation.
However, without a doubt, the behavior of every single one of us can have ripple effects that touch faraway people.