Social distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve

Ranjan Roy | Friday, 27 March 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis continues to increasingly unfold across the globe. A group of researchers said that if the number of cases continues to double every three days, there would be about a hundred million cases in the USA alone by May this year. The COVID-19 outbreak cannot be stopped immediately, but it can be slowed through "social distancing measures," a delegation of World Health Organisation (WHO) led by its representative to Bangladesh Dr. Bardan Jung Rana recommends. Social distancing puts space between people. When people infected with the virus stay away from others, they can't pass it onto anyone else.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that one of the most effective means to flatten the coronavirus curve is for everyone to practise social distancing. The term 'flattening the curve' comes from a chart depicting two curves that demonstrate the outcome of social distancing. The key message of the chart is that it is essential to delay the spread of  COVID-19 from person to person, though it is a difficult task to halt the spread.

The WHO has repeatedly emphasised the significance of "flattening the curve" to tackle COVID-19 outbreak, calling on countries to impose stringent public health measures including "social distancing." The WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "WHO continues to call on all countries to implement a comprehensive approach, intending to slow down transmission and flatten the curve."

The ideal goal of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is to halt the spread. Slowing it is thus crucial. This reduces the number of cases that are active at any given time, which in turn offers doctors, hospitals, police, schools, and vaccine-manufacturers time to prepare and respond, without being overwhelmed.

History has taught this lesson before. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the USA shows that the 1918 influenza pandemic provided powerful evidence that cities that implemented interventions early, such as -- closing churches, schools, theatres, and dance halls and forbidding crowding on streets and banning public gatherings, experienced much lower peaks in the death rates than others that did not. Recently, it is clear that social distancing is a proven public health measure that is being implemented globally to contain coronavirus outbreaks. Proponents advocate social distancing could buy Bangladesh valuable time against coronavirus.

The official phrase is "social distancing," . However, it may be better understood as  "physical distancing". We can still be social, despite this distancing in different ways. We can take advantage of the social media and video apps to support each other and take care of each other until the virus is under control.

Coronavirus management entails three questions: how is the virus likely to play out, how does it end, and does human behaviour make a difference? The latter is connected to social distancing that can flatten the coronavirus curve in numerous ways. This includes avoiding contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus, avoiding non-essential use of public transport, avoiding large and small gatherings in public spaces, and also avoiding meeting with friends and relatives. Strong action is, therefore, required for promoting social distancing measures.

Controlling modes of mass transportation is a vital social distancing measure. Public transports are often overloaded with commuters. The government has to make an intelligent decision about it, particularly in the divisional cities, since whenever people use this transportation system, they cannot observe the two-meter social distancing rule. The transport system requires new strategies (or policies) to help reduce risk to passengers.

Industries and factories where many people gather have to adopt precautionary measures for increasing distance among workers. "Guidance for employers and businesses on coronavirus" must be prepared without further delay since the government has decided to keep industries open. This guidance has to be promoted as a good practice to keep everyone updated on actions taken to reduce risks of exposure in workplace. Businesses should encourage their employees to work from home, wherever possible.

Educational institutions, including schools, colleges, and universities, are now virtually closed. However, students' hostels, halls, and dormitories have to be locked down.

Isolation and quarantine are key social distancing measures. While isolation serves the same purpose as quarantine, it's meant for those who are already sick. It keeps infected people away from healthy people to prevent the virus from spreading. Quarantine means staying in a specially designated location away from others to observe and monitor health status. Several health experts opine the government has been adopting a "flexible policy" in isolation and quarantine that makes the "entire communities at risk."

Imposing curfew is an extreme measure for preventing COVID-19. Currently, several countries and some U.S. states adopted this measure to keep people inside. New Jersey, for example, has a state-wide curfew now. People cannot leave their municipality borders if not for work, health or other extraordinary reasons. As the coronavirus spread continues, the government has to ponder implementing curfew, particularly in some areas/cities.

Shelter-in-place or lockdown is also a tough measure to impose, although many affected countries have benefited from lockdown. China has taken control of coronavirus through lockdowns. Bangladesh government has plans to lockdown vulnerable areas. The WHO has suggested that Bangladesh should go for partial or full lockdown and declare an emergency to prevent further spread of COVID-19. The government should have clear and well-considered strategies for addressing a huge economic and social downside of shutting down cities/communities.

As time flies, people from all walks of life are apprehensive that the situation in the country may deteriorate further. At the moment, social distancing should be made mandatory to flatten the coronavirus curve. Experts have also advocated that the Bangladesh government must take urgent action (e.g., partial or full lockdown) to fight the coronavirus outbreak without further delay.


Ranjan Roy, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.

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