A deeper dive into the most commonly said phrase during the COVID-19 crisis and how it is only a short-term solution.
During these turbulent times, the only constant in the media seems to be “social distancing” and “flattening the curve”. But to what extent does flattening the curve actually help reduce the number of deaths and cases? Do they really contribute to the eradication of COVID-19?
What is flattening the curve?
The area under the curve is representative of the total number of COVID-19 cases. Each point on the line shows the day since the first case (X-axis) and the number of cases per day (Y-axis). As such, flattening the curve involves not only decreasing the total number of COVID-19 cases, but also spreading out the infected cases over a long period of time. Each case above the dotted line (which indicates the health care system capacity) results in additional strain on the health care system and thus a greater mortality rate in not only COVID-19 cases, but also other diseases such as strokes and heart attacks.
Currently, the only way we know how to flatten the curve is to reduce the number of people exposed to COVID-19. This method results in “social distancing”, a non-pharmaceutical measure intended to decrease the likelihood of exposure by increasing physical distance between people. Many countries across the world are observing “social distancing” guidelines— including not gathering in groups, canceling large gatherings and maintaining a 2 meter (6 feet) distance from others²— all in an attempt to reduce the number of cases and delay the peak of the outbreak.
Since social distancing is relatively easy to conduct (at least, from an individual’s perspective), we should do all we can to flatten the curve, right? Well, maybe not. In truth, flattening the curve is a short-term solution, with many not-too-positive long term effects already beginning to surface. But there may be another solution.
Effects of Flattening the Curve
As nearly everyone in the world begins working at home and practicing social distancing, severe long-term effects are starting to take shape. These manifest most prominently as a fall in the stock market. The US stock market experienced its worst fall since 1987, with the DOW Jones Index closing more than 12% down in one day.3 This drop is a big deal, as seen by this stockbroker’s face.
Severe drops in the stock market have started a cascade of reactions that have impacted millions of lives.
Firstly, many people are losing their jobs. Companies are forced to cut expenses and workers are becoming less productive due to social distancing guidelines. In the US alone, the number of unemployed people increased by 13.5% in February (at the beginning of the crisis). This leads to financial setbacks for not only the individuals, but also for their families and children. Governments around the world have passed stimulus packages in an attempt to rescue the economy from further damage. Furthermore, the economies of major countries are grinding to a halt, since the majority of their workforce is quarantined. Thus, supply chains become severely disrupted, as seen in China during the period when multiple major cities were in lockdown.
Even though it seems like the world economy is heading for a recession, flattening the curve by social distancing is truly working. The virus’s rate of infection in countries that have been in quarantine for the past two weeks (the incubation period of COVID-19) is decreasing. The burden on the health care system should decrease with it.
After Quarantine/Social Distancing
Many countries are preparing to cease quarantine and are eager for the economy to return to “normal”. However, if countries are not ready, this could be disastrous. Wuhan, the virus’ place of origin, has only recently opened up its borders. However, this is only due to the fact that China has had no new cases of COVID-19 native to the country.
If social distancing ceases while there are active COVID-19 cases, masses of people will become infected and the 3 weeks of quarantine will be for nothing. The number of cases will skyrocket. Health care systems will collapse, overwhelmed by the sudden influx of cases. Then, possibly, a terrible scenario may arise: people might bear the misbelief that they can no longer become infected after social distancing, and become slack about close contact with others. They could, unknowingly, endanger both themselves and other vulnerable demographics, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, once more.
The purpose of this article isn’t to cause panic among its readers. Though social distancing may not work out in the long term, there must be an alternative solution.
One way is to raise the line so the curve can fit under it, even after society returns to normal. To achieve a higher healthcare capacity, healthcare systems around the world must gain access to crucial resources such as doctors, nurses, ventilators, and even vaccines. Although acquiring these resources will take a huge toll on society's capital, many large corporations are already transitioning their manufacturing pipeline to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) and life-saving ventilators.
Another solution is to prolong social distancing until the number of cases in the country returns to zero and stop all international travel plans for one to two months. China is currently implementing this measure.
Both of these solutions have short-term and long-term drawbacks. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 will not disappear without drastic action and may even develop into an endemic, not too unlike the seasonal flu. Thus, to prevent this development and continue saving lives, we must continue social distancing and remain vigilant about the situation— even after lockdown orders are lifted. Governments must also seek the best path forward: one that balances both people’s lives and the economic impacts of the virus.
Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash