Social Distancing and ‘Flattening’ the Coronavirus Curve

The pattern that needs to be aimed for is: contain, delay, research, and mitigate.

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Here's how social distancing works: The pattern that needs to be aimed for is: contain, delay, research, and mitigate.
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Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has highlighted the need for social distancing as a means to prevent community-wide infection and to contain the virus. At a press meet in Delhi, Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, MoHFW, said self quarantine, social distancing, and maintaining personal hygiene is essential to prevent the spread.

But how does social distancing help? Here's an explainer.

As efforts around the world are underway to contain further spread of the novel coronavirus, the term 'flatten the curve' is being used a lot towards this objective.

What does it mean?

Epidemiologists have been talking about the need to ‘flatten’ the curve of the virus as it spreads across the world, in order to avoid a considerably high jump in numbers. This flattening will delay the peak and spread it out- and this delay will give us more time to develop vaccines and figure out treatment options.

Since India is still in its initial phase of the epidemic, timely interventions can perhaps work in doing just this.

The pattern that needs to be aimed for is: contain, delay, research, and mitigate.

How Can This Be Done? Social Distancing Might Be Key

China has recorded over 80,000 confirmed cases, of which 80 percent have recovered. Proactive measures in the country, like locking down millions of people, are believed to have helped, says a report by The Lancet.

The report states that steps such as quarantine, social distancing, and isolation of the infected populations worked in containing the epidemic.

Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore seemed to have ‘flattened the curve’, despite being close to China, while Italy has recorded a staggering 12000 cases with a death toll above 800. Prime Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, has now announced that the country is to close all shops except food stores and pharmacies in the continent’s toughest lockdown yet.

The probability of other countries, such as the US and UK, being on the same track as Italy in terms of experiencing a significant jump in cases, is extremely high.

So what works? And what does ‘social distancing’ mean?

The CDC defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance” whenever possible.

  • Voluntary and mandated quarantine
  • Self-isolation
  • Stopping and avoiding mass gatherings or crowded areas
  • Closure of educational and workplaces
  • Isolating households or cities

The WHO has recommended maintaining at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

In conversation with FIT, Dr Naga Suresh Veerapu, Assistant Professor, Dept of Life Sciences at Shiv Nadar University, says,

“These measures not only limit any individual’s infection hazard, but also protects the entire community by providing few opportunities for the virus to spread.”
Dr Veerapu

India has, with over 150 confirmed cases, announced that all visas to the country – except diplomatic, official, UN/international organisations, employment, and project visas – stand suspended till 15 April. Those already in the country will not be affected by the suspension.

Social Distancing and ‘Flattening’ the Coronavirus Curve
(Photo: FIT)

The Lancet model shows how proactive measures of keeping distance, voluntarily avoiding mass gatherings, or imposing temporary shut-downs could help ‘flatten’ the curve. Without these measures, the cases are expected to peak, as the red graph signifies. Implementing social distancing can help contain the virus and bring down cases to a number that doesn’t overwhelm the country’s health system.

“Currently, China appears to be in the flattened part of the curve, while South Korea flattened that down, in contrast, there is a steady rise in the number of cases in Iran, Europe and the USA”, Dr Veerapu said.

Closures of Schools - Do They Work?

The report, however, also mentions that school closure may not be as effective, considering the seemingly low rate of infection among children. Similarly, avoiding large gatherings of people will reduce the number of super-spreading events, but if prolonged contact is required for transmission, this measure may only help with a small proportion.

The uncertainty is due to remaining questions about the virus — which has never been encountered in humans before. However, proactive measures are needed to prevent a spike that other countries have evidently experienced. The logic is also that children can be carriers of the virus and take it to people who are actually at life-risk. Better safe than sorry, is the idea. 

“The greater the reduction in transmission, the longer and flatter the epidemic curve (figure), with the risk of resurgence when interventions are lifted perhaps to mitigate economic impact,” The Lancet states.

Importantly, individual behaviour will be important to control the spread by:

  • Early self-isolation
  • Seeking medical advice remotely unless symptoms are severe
  • Social distancing

Along with this, government actions to ban mass gatherings, better diagnostic facilities and specialized treatment for people with illnesses are extremely crucial measures.

“Though, social distancing is one of the best strategies in preventing the spread of COVID-19, practicing respiratory hygiene and handwashing at an individual level are important in preventing the virus spread,” Dr Veerapu added.

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