Sometimes, does it seem like we’re taking this whole social distancing thing too seriously?
The concept of social distancing has proven to be effective based on history. As a century-old practice from the 1918 Spanish flu, social distancing during a pandemic led to significantly lower death rates. The concept refers to preventing sick people from coming in contact with healthy people and reducing disease transmission, and canceling events and gatherings of large groups of people.
Social distancing does not stop the outbreak of a disease, but it slows it. It is a means of reducing the exposure of a pandemic to not overburden the health care system and reduce the exposure of at risk populations. By reducing exposure of at risk populations like the elderly and those with compromised immune systems and keeping the workload of the health care system manageable, there will be significantly less deaths from a pandemic.
Now, we are taking a lesson from history as we are faced with another global pandemic in the Coronavirus. Social distancing measures were placed by the local governments of many cities as they saw their first Coronavirus cases. The Spanish flu was the deadliest pandemic in modern history, and some cities in America flattened the curve to varying degrees of success. A National Geographic series of graphs of American cities’ response to the Spanish flu and subsequent deaths gives a lot of lessons from history for how to best contain a pandemic and flatten the curve.
But one lesson strikes out in particular: it is a terrible mistake to relax social distancing measures too early. More people will die and the health care system will get overburdened.
In St. Louis, strong social distancing measures were in place four weeks after the pandemic outbreak. They maintained strong social distancing measures for seven weeks and had a relatively low death rate compared to other cities. Then 11 weeks after the pandemic, the city relaxed its social distancing measures. It faced a second wave of deaths and cases.
In San Francisco, strong social distancing measures were put in place seven weeks after the pandemic outbreak. They maintained their measures for five weeks before relaxing their social distancing measures. There was a long, second wave of outbreaks. San Francisco actually had as much trouble we do now enforcing social distancing measures, with a health officer shooting three people for refusing to don a mandatory mask.
This is history, but it prevents valuable lessons for now. The Hubei province of China is relaxing social distancing measures and travel in and out of the state because they have succeeded in containing Coronavirus cases, but scientists are wary. Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, expects that a second wave of cases may come at the end of April.
And even for our lockdowns, shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders in the United States, the lesson for today is that we are in for a much longer lockdown and imposition of social distancing measures than we would want. It sucks to not be working and not have a stable source of income, to say the least. With the economy crashing and jobless claims at an all-time high, it’s hard to impose social distancing measures and survive.
But if history is any lesson, then to be careful and effectively limit the amount of people who get sick and die from the pandemic, we’re going to need to quarantine a lot longer than we would prefer. Of course, this means that Donald Trump’s “Easter Coronavirus Miracle” is impossible, and that we should be prepared to be quarantined for much longer than we like or risk a second wave of illness.
The research is out about how dangerous it would be to relax social distancing soon. If we relaxed measures in May, it would cost the country millions of lives. Experts believe this is highly unlikely. The health care system would be strongly overwhelmed before the population exhibits some degree of herd immunity.
Relaxing measures by the summer is also a stretch, and would require very stringent and drastic measures such as an eight to 12 week shelter-in-place, according to Dr. Zeke Emmanuel at the University of Pennsylvania.
We’re in this fight against this pandemic for a very long time. Social distancing is a very hard thing to do, taking a toll on our mental and emotional health, draining our financial security, and presents a lot of risk to the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Children not being in school will drive parents and entire families crazy.
Our efforts at flattening the curve mean that social distancing efforts will be in place longer. We won’t go back to work longer and will have the kids in the house longer. We are not curing the virus, but giving our health care system and our at-risk populations more time. For those of you that think it’s better to just go on with life and get the virus over with, as I thought once upon a time, think again about the amount of people, and people you love, who will die.
So let’s take a lesson from the Spanish flu. Not only should we take social distancing very very seriously, but we should be prepared to be in this fight for much longer than we want.