The number of people infected by the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 is rapidly increasing every day. Recent reports now show that the US has more confirmed cases of the coronavirus than any country in the world, surpassing China, where the pandemic began. Worldometers.info revealed that the country has 85,377 cases, which is higher than China and Italy with 81,340 and 80,589 cases, respectively.
As of current writing, the coronavirus cases across the world have reached 531,799 with a total death toll of 24,071 and recovered cases of 123,942. The novel coronavirus' case fatality rate was estimated at around 2% in the WHO press conference held on January 29, 2020. Since experts did not yet know exactly how many had been infected worldwide, it was too early to be able to put a percentage on the mortality rate figure. A prior estimate had put that number at 3%. Unfortunately, epidemiologists state that the fatality rate can change as a virus can mutate.
Since COVID-19 has proven to be extremely contagious, many countries have ordered their citizens to avoid huge crowds. Some have even banned public gatherings, events,and festivals that could gather many people. While it may be disappointing to hear that these events are being canceled, there’s a public health reason for these measures. John Hopkins Medicine stated that these cancellations can help stop or slow down the spread of the virus. This allows the healthcare system to more readily care for patients over time.
Canceling events that are likely to draw crowds is an example of social distancing. “Social distancing refers to a way of creating a barrier of physical distance between two or more people so that transmission of the virus can be prevented or halted,” Arindam Basu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Canterbury, said.
Importance of Social Distancing
After the World Health Organization upgraded COVID-19 to pandemic status, the organization started to encourage people to practice social distancing. It increases the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Aside from avoiding huge crowds or crowded spaces, social distancing can be practiced through working from home instead of at the office, closing schools or switching to online classes, visiting loved ones by electronic devices instead of in person, and canceling or postponing conferences and large meetings.
While social distancing will not alter the overall impact of COVID-19, this will minimize the spread of the virus and fewer people will be exposed at once. With fewer patients needing testing and treatment at the same time, healthcare workers and hospitals can focus on patients that needed them most. They will be less likely to run out of supplies or beds to care for patients. “At this time, we do not know of a safe and effective vaccine, nor do we know if a safe and effective drug will work to eliminate the Covid-19 infection once it has occurred. In the absence of these, our best bet is based on prevention,” Basu said.
History has proven that social distancing is an effective measure to control the spread of the virus. Back in 1918, the Spanish flu started spreading around the world, and it is still considered one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, the virus responsible for the disease infected over a quarter of the world’s population and had an estimated death toll of between 50 million and 100 million.
In the midst of this pandemic, many US cities such as Saint Louis, Missouri decided to cancel parades, which aimed to promote liberty bonds and introduce other measures to limit public gatherings. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where 600 soldiers were already infected with the flu virus, proceeded with the parade. After a month, reports show that more than 10,000 people in Philadelphia had died of Spanish flu, while the number of fatalities in Saint Louis stayed below 700.
One study that analyzed the interventions made in several cities around the US during 1918 revealed that those that banned public gatherings and closed theatres, schools and churches early had far lower peak death rates. This shows an extremely important lesson about the difference social distancing can make, which can be one of the best ways to fight the pandemic.
Social Distancing is For the Privileged
As nations announced specific guidelines for those measures, many advocate groups raised concerns over how the social distancing measures would affect vulnerable sectors such as minimum-wage workers and those in the informal sector. In developing countries like South Africa, workers need to find a way to avoid huge crowds on cramped public transport just to go to work. Meanwhile, the elites have their own private cars to use, allowing them to go anywhere they want to while practicing social distancing and avoiding the public commute.
The most vulnerable and most marginalized communities are more at risk of being infected by the virus because social distancing requires that an individual have the freedom to separate themselves from others. For those who are living in slums and informal settlements, social distancing can be impractical or impossible. According to Aljazeera, an English language website for Aljazeera Magazine, these places were overcrowded and lacked services even before the threat of a global health crisis emerged.
For more than 70 million people suffering from displacement in crowded camps, social distancing is a cruel joke. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, around 500 people live in the informal camp where tents are just five feet away from the others. They have sheets of tarpaulin and plastic that make the walls between them and the people share water with other families. “Social distancing is a privilege. There is a hashtag trending: #StayHome. They can’t do that. They don’t have a home to stay in,” Sahar Tawfeeq, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq, said.
According to Foreign Policy, an American news publication, the UN and aid organizations are faced with the task of trying to protect the world’s 70 million displaced people from a virus, which are mostly situated in camps with limited supplies and crowded areas. “All the basic things you need to prevent an outbreak are missing,” Misty Buswell, the Middle East policy director for the International Rescue Committee, said.
While social distancing is a great strategy to control the pandemic, countries need to recognize that it is a privilege that only a few can afford. Governments should impose measures that would help them instead of leaving them suffering.