Factors involved in social distancing | Sunday Observer

Factors involved in social distancing

“Social distancing” or maintaining a “physical distance” between individuals has become a familiar phrase in our daily conversations and our daily doses of information we eagerly absorb from various sources.  By looking at the progression of the number of people tested positive and the number of deaths with time, in countries like, Italy, Spain and even the USA, one can safely assume that they could have had a better control of the numbers and saved much more lives had they started practising “social distancing” much earlier than they did.  Of course, that by itself may not have had a significant effect if the large scale testing and immediate isolation of infected people were not implemented from the very beginning.

If we look at the history of pandemics and/or epidemics the world has endured within the last hundred years, including what we know so far about COVID-19, we may see what and how we can learn about the precautionary measures we can take in preventing people from getting such a virus and also the treatment methods that can save lives.  Earliest traceable times during which social distancing had been practised are the creation of quarantine complexes, around the 5th to 15th century, for people with Leprosy, called “leper colonies”.   Going back to the early 1900s one may find out about the Polio epidemic in the United States in which about 30,000 people got infected (with a 20% death rate), the most famous victim being Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the President of the country from 1933 to 1945.  A main problem with the polio virus was that about 95% of the infected may not show any symptoms but can infect others for a period of six weeks from the time of infection.  It did not spread as fast as COVID-19 of curse due to two  reasons.  1.  The rate at which people moved across countries, or even across the states within the USA, in early 1900s was much less than at present.  2.  The two main ways polio could have been transferred from one person to another were, “Oral – Oral” (saliva of an infected person going into the mouth of another person) or “Fecal – Oral” (fecal matter of an infected person contaminating the water or the food intake of another person).  The vaccine to protect people from getting polio was developed in the first half of the 1950s and almost all the children around the world now are getting immunized against polio leaving only a handful of possible cases in the world.  Then in the early 1920s a virus named, “Spanish Flu” spread across the countries infecting over 500 million people, again with a 20% death rate.  This time the numbers were higher than those of the polio epidemic since the two constraints that were holding polio under control were not there anymore with the Spanish Flu.  During this time the world medical community started paying attention to social distancing as a viable method of slowing down the rate at which the virus was spreading.  But, the numbers recorded after the Asian Flu pandemic during 1957 – 58, millions around the world being infected with over 1.1 million deaths, show that the world had not learned the lesson of “social distancing” properly even though the pandemics prior to that had provided ample opportunity to do so. 

Then, of course, the worst is the AIDS pandemic surfacing in the early 80s killing millions around the world.  It took a while for the world to recognise it as a pandemic and also a serious crisis threatening the human population of the whole world mainly because it was identified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) primarily spreading through homosexual communities.  Therefore even scientists were not taking it as something for which they should feel the responsibility to find a cure as soon as possible.  Moreover, since AIDS was identified as an STD which cannot be transmitted from person to person through touch or just a cough or a sneeze, social distancing was not something the experts discussed or advocated as a preventive measure.  Though, there is no cure for AIDS yet, there are improvements in different methods of treating the illness through which an infected person can expect to live his/her natural life well beyond the average expectancy of it with those advanced drug therapies though the affordability of such treatments is a different story.  More recently, of course, we remember the H1N1 pandemic during 2009 – 2010 which killed about half a million people worldwide, Ebola epidemic during 2014 – 2016 reportedly killing over 15,000 people mainly in West African countries and Zika epidemic from 2015 mainly in Central American countries.  Though Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes mainly a smaller percentage have been discovered as transmitted through sexual acts among humans.  But social distancing was used as a preventive measure to reduce the spread of Ebola virus since that was found to be spreading through close contacts with infected people. 

With that brief history about different pandemic and epidemic situations we, as citizens of the world were facing, one can easily see that highly contagious COVID-19 is even more dangerous than most of those other viruses in the past with an incubation period of two to three weeks in a human body.  The fact that some people can get infected and recover from it within two to three weeks’ time without even showing any symptoms makes COVID-19 very dangerous since that infected person can spread the virus around to hundreds of people without making anyone aware of that transmission.  By March 26, 2020, the number of infected is almost a half a million with a death toll of over 21,000 around the world.  This half a million number comes from the people who have been tested and confirmed as positive for the virus.  There can be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people who may be showing mild symptoms but not tested and also who may be infected but not showing any symptoms and hence not tested either.  What that means is that none of us can be sure about having the virus for quite some time and therefore the best way to minimize the possibilities of being a transmitter of the virus is to practise personal hygiene and social distancing.

Though the Government has taken necessary action to help people practise these preventive measures we have seen people putting themselves at high risk by being in crowded markets trying to buy food and other necessary items forgetting about their face masks and/or other protective measures.  I think, most Sri Lankans do not have any understanding about what is known as the “personal space” of an individual, which most of the western nations practise in their day-to-day life.  At the kindergarten itself each child can be taught to maintain an area of a circle with a radius of 1 metre (or 3 feet) around him/her as his/her personal space and also to respect such a space of another person.  Therefore when they have to go in line from one place to another they automatically maintain that distance between two consecutive occupants.  When people drive on the road, they will follow the lane signs properly and stay in their respective lanes, irrespective of the space they see between two vehicles parallel to each other on two adjacent lanes or between a vehicle and the lane demarcation line.  If we can develop such habits and qualities that certainly will help us in situations like this where essential maintenance of social distance is second nature to the people and therefore members of the Police and the Armed Forces can attend to more important tasks of the war against this deadly virus.  If one is not still ready to restrict one’s behaviour purely for the sake of not giving the virus to others, one should at least think about practising social distancing in order to protect him/herself and his/her family from getting the virus from the others.  If we can use this golden opportunity to get into the habit of enjoying one’s personal space and respecting others’ personal spaces whenever it is possible in person and/or on the road when we are in our vehicles, then when we come out of COVID-19, we not only will be healthier and more united but also will be a bit more civilized nation.

(The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]

Source for Statistics:  www.livescience.com )