What's the Deal with "Social Distancing," and Is It Actually Effective?

Person climbing the stairs of an otherwise completely empty outdoor mall.
Panda errant / Shutterstock Pictures

Read all the news about the coronavirus and, in addition to the suggestion to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, there is more and more discussion about social distance. But what exactly does this imply?

The court, according to the CDC’s own definition, is really simple even if the term itself can appear as abstract:

Social distancing means stay out of the gathering parameters [crowded public places where close contact with others may occur, such as shopping centers, movie theaters, stadiums], avoiding mass gatherings and keeping distance (about 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.

While this may require short-term lifestyle changes and adjustments, implementing it for most people is not an outrageous endeavor: switch to the movies to watch Netflix, skip the leisurely Saturday at the mall and eat for online shopping and a meal etc.

The question that most people would naturally ask is whether social distancing is effective enough to be worth it. Although we cannot give you an answer based on what is going on with an ongoing epidemic, we have enough information about the spread of past epidemics to suggest that it is a very effective defense against spread of infection.

More at Washington Post, for example, they examined different historical epidemics and interviewed epidemiologists about them:

“Social estrangement seems humble, like washing your hands,” said Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. But during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, one of the key strategies that helped stem the epidemic was that people in communities changed their behavior to minimize contact with others, she said.

However, the evidence for the effectiveness of the practice goes back further. For example, during the 1918 flu pandemic, the cities of Philadelphia and St. Louis adopted different approaches to limit public gatherings. Philadelphia has taken longer, taking just over two weeks, to adopt social distancing rules to reduce the time spent in public gathering. Saint-Louis acted faster, taking action within two days of the first reported case. There were other variables, of course, but the maximum death rate in Philadelphia was about 400% higher than the maximum death rate in St. Louis.

It therefore remains to be seen whether dramatic restrictions are being put in place in the United States – like those currently in effect in Italy. Anyway, given the historical precedent for its effectiveness, there is no harm in proactively isolating yourself socially, which you can do by choosing to spend more evenings and less time at get together in groups with people.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, even if you feel that the coronavirus is not a big risk to you – maybe you are in your twenties and the probability that it will cause you is, statistically speaking , very small – it’s worth doing it for others. You may have a young, robust immune system, but not others in your community and in your circle of friends and family. What could be just a week off work for you, at worst, could be an extended hospital stay for your grandparents or a neighbor with a weakened immune system.

Choosing to stay and catch up on your constantly growing Netflix queue is a very small thing to do to slow the spread of a virus that could pose a great threat to the most vulnerable people around you.

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