By Dr. Patrick Jean-Pierre MD
It is safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the lives of millions around the world upside down. Social life has been significantly disrupted. Socializing and connecting with loved ones is almost impossible without fear of spreading the virus. Ever since the coronavirus situation escalated into a pandemic, you have probably heard the term social distancing everywhere. Social distancing is not just a buzzword; it is one of the most effective safety tips to combat a highly infectious virus like COVID-19.
In simple terms, social distancing is the maintenance of large physical spaces between people in public spaces. Under social distancing, people avoid congregating in large crowds. When they stand in line at shops and banks, people must keep at least a few feet away from each other.
Humans are such social creatures, where social connection is a necessity for survival. So, the concept of social distancing was alien to many people until early 2020. While close social connections are great for people’s mental health, they become the perfect breeding ground for pandemics.
There’s no better example to highlight the importance of social distancing than South Korea. For the first couple of weeks, the country had a steady, but gradual, increase in novel coronavirus cases. Things changed overnight when they got to Patient 31, who was a member of Shincheonji, a fringe Christian group. When the 61-year-old woman tested positive in late February, the country only had 39 cases. Less than a month later, this number exploded to over 9,000.
This rapid increase was due to Patient 31’s interactions with hundreds of members at the Shincheonji church services. The church had encouraged its members to pray while kneeling very close together. As a result, Patient 31 had unknowingly infected hundreds of members at the church services.
How did this happen? This is mainly down to the method of transmission of the virus, and how contagious COVID-19 is. COVID-19 is spread through small droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth. So, every time someone coughs or sneezes, the virus can be spread to someone standing close.
On top of this, COVID-19 is also very contagious and takes longer for symptoms to show. The contagiousness of a virus is measured through a metric called R0. The R0 of seasonal flu is around 1.3. By contrast, the R0 of COVID-19 is 2–2.5. This means on average, a person with COVID-19 can infect 2 people. A recent CDC study showed that it can be as high as 5.
Going back to Korea’s Patient 31, imagine the hundreds of people she infected then going and infecting 5 people each. The result is a widespread pandemic. See how this event unfolded:
R0 is not fixed, however, and can be easily reduced with adequate safety tips and measures. Social distancing and city lockdowns have been drastic, but necessary, measures to reduce R0.
As previously mentioned, the main goal of social distancing is to maintain large physical spaces between people. Liquid droplets leaving someone’s mouth travel a certain distance before they fall to the ground. So maintaining this distance between people is the key to reducing coronavirus transmissions.
According to the CDC, these are the main rules of social distancing:
Another important factor is COVID-19’s incubation period. The incubation period is the time lapsed between catching the virus and showing symptoms. During this time, people don’t know they are infected and can easily infect others unknowingly. For COVID-19, the incubation time is 1–14 days. This is why it’s important for asymptomatic individuals to practice social distancing.
Apart from social distancing, another strategy to combat COVID-19 is practicing good hygiene. This includes things like washing hands regularly and wiping down surfaces frequently. Hand washing is especially effective because soap molecules directly kill coronavirus. The soap pulls apart the lipid covering of the virus. It is most effective after 20 seconds of handwashing.
If you don’t have access to hand washing facilities, consider using an effective hand sanitizer. There are currently huge shortages of hand sanitizer around the world, so you can try making your own DIY hand sanitizer. If making your own, pay special attention to the ingredients and proportions used. Here is a good guide on DIY hand sanitizer recipes:
In addition to practicing good hygiene, make sure that you follow coronavirus updates from your local gyms, supermarkets, and organizations. Stay up to date on general information about COVID-19 from reputable sources like the CDC and the WHO.
Following safety tips like social distancing means you’re often stuck at home in self-isolation. But self-isolation doesn’t need to be boring! Here are some fun things you can do while at home:
There is overwhelming evidence that social distancing is an effective strategy against coronavirus. To contain the pandemic, scientists estimate that the R0 of COVID-19 must reduce from 2 to below 1. This can be achieved via a holistic approach to successfully battle COVID-19. This means practicing good hygiene, quarantining, and self-isolation together with social distancing. To get through the pandemic, it is important to keep yourself both mentally and physically fit.