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Social Distancing as a Tool to Fight COVID-19

  Apr 17, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing ripples all around the world and changing the rules of work, home, and social life. Normal day to day activities such as shopping, parties, going to school and work have become disrupted as governments advise people to stay home in a bid to limit physical contact and social interactions. This is because the coronavirus has been seen to rapidly spread through direct physical contact with an infected person. The disruption of daily life for many Kenyans is real and significant — but so are the potential life-saving benefits.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has devised measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Some of these measures include social distancing, self-isolation, and self-quarantine which have been shown to significantly slow down the spread of the virus. It is all part of an effort to do what epidemiologists call ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic.

Seeing that physical contact with infected persons is one of the primary ways of spreading the coronavirus, governments all over the world adopted social distancing as a key strategy to slow down the infection rate.

What is Social Distancing?

Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between two or more people. It includes handshakes and any other type of physical contact. This is to prevent, control or ‘flatten the curve’ of the transmission process of the virus. WHO recommends staying at least six feet away from other people which reduces the chances of infection.

Social distancing cannot completely prevent transmissions but plays a crucial role in slowing down the spread of the virus. If done correctly and on a large-scale social distancing can effectively slow down the chain of transmission of the virus.

In the wake of looming uncertainty over safe and effective measures to eliminate the pandemic; many countries across the world are now implementing social distancing by prohibiting mass gatherings, restricting entry to public spaces, encouraging working from home, shutting down schools, universities – having online learning and in some places, a total lockdown is enforced which ensures people stay at home, only leaving the house for essential services.

What is Flattening the Curve?

In epidemiology, the idea of slowing a virus’ spread so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time is known as “flattening the curve.” This explains why many countries are implementing social distancing guidelines even though the outbreaks might not yet be severe in some of the countries.

Here’s what you need to know about the curve, and why we want to flatten it.

What is the Curve?

This refers to the projected number of people who will contract the pandemic over a period of time (this is a theoretical number that’s used to model the virus’ spread).

This is a sample epidemic curve, with and without social distancing (Image credit: Center for Disease Control, CDC, -Drew Harris).

The curve takes on different shapes, depending on the infection rate: It could be a steep curve (red part), in which the virus spreads exponentially (case counts keep doubling at a consistent rate), and the total number of cases increases to its peak within a few weeks. Infection curves with a steep rise also have a steep fall; after the virus infects pretty much everyone who can be infected, case numbers begin to drop drastically as well.

The faster the infection curve rises, the quicker the local health care system gets overloaded beyond its capacity to treat people. This means an increase in the number of patients leading to an increase in the need for healthcare facilities and personnel hence more hospitals may run out of the basic supplies required to effectively respond to the outbreak.

However, if we can delay the spread of the virus so that we are not receiving new cases all at once, but rather over the course of weeks or months, then the healthcare system can adjust and accommodate all the people who are possibly going to get sick and need hospital care. People would still get infected, but at a rate that the health care system could keep up with – a scenario represented by the more gently sloped blue curve on the graph.

How do we Flatten the Curve?

As there is currently no vaccine or specific medication to treat COVID-19, and because testing is so limited in the country, the only way to flatten the curve is through collective action. The Ministry of Health recommends personal hygiene and social distancing: frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow, self-isolating when they’re sick or suspect they might be, and start social distancing (essentially, avoiding other people whenever possible) right away.

The pandemic can seem overwhelming, but in truth, every person can help slow down the spread of COVID-19. By doing your part, you can make a big difference to your health, and that of others around you.

Article by Caroline Munene

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