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Is social distancing a truly effective way to fight coronavirus?

The origins and spread of coronavirus pandemic is already well-known to most, and high-level awareness-raising efforts made by the authorities are also effectively spreading hygiene precautions. However, the recent emergence of the concept of social distancing in the media was received by some with skepticism and disbelief, or even dubbed as flippant. Could this method still be a valid way to counter the spreading of this disease?

What does social distancing mean, exactly? Definitely not that we should completely avoid contacting anyone and that we shall hermetically seal ourselves away from the world, in faint solitude. However, it is important to be aware that the spread of the current and any similar epidemic is primarily based on personal contact – and social isolation seeks to control the latter by calling for avoidance of crowded situations and events. These can be any event (concert, cinema, conference), frequented public transport, or even large community gatherings (family celebrations, weddings, gatherings).

Does this mean we have to cease contact with our loved ones during the pandemic? Not at all. Social support is particularly important at this time as it is one of the six central pillars underpinning our health – but it is also crucial to do it remotely, over the phone or via the Internet as much as possible (while paying special attention to disinfecting our most frequently used device: our mobile phone!). This advice is of tremendous importance to our high-risk, older relatives, whom we should use more caution with every interaction.

Of course, this sounds nice in principle, but does social distancing really make sense? In a March 14 article in the Washington Post, the possible effects of this tool on virus spreading is shown through an ingenious motion picture simulation. For moving models, you should click on the link above, where you can scroll down to see a simulation of four cases – in this article, we will show the final results (summary diagrams of the modeled outbreak):

The result of four epidemic models from the Washington Post article.

  1. The first case is a model of completely free movement of citizens, where the spread of infection is extremely rapid (sharply rising brown band, or turquoise dots in the moving simulation turning brown; the appearing purple band shows the healed cases).
  2. The second model box shows the operation of a quarantine, where it is added that in a real-life situation, a perfect quarantine is not realistic and therefore the spread of the infection is still serious because of the people passing through it.
  3. The models get really interesting here: the third box shows the case where three-quarters of the population uses social distancing (that is, three out of four people staying at home and keeping distance).
  4. The fourth box also shows the case of social distancing, but this time under twice as strict conditions, that is, seven out of eight people keeping it.

We emphasize that this is a simulation and does not directly reflect the spread of the coronavirus – but it is an excellent illustration of the power of social distancing.

What is the main message of all this? First and foremost, during the utilization of social distancing it is extremely important, how much it is taken seriously and supported by any individual – since any governmental action is only one side of prevention, and on the other side, we are also responsible for its success. However, this does not mean breaking the connection with loved ones at all: social support, mostly through telephone or internet contact matters a lot at these times.