You can’t come out

Here’s something sobering. Imperial College London ran a series of simulations to see what the death toll in the UK would be if the country:

(a) did nothing to fight the virus, 

(b) implemented containment measures (isolating patients, quarantining their households and implementing population-wide social distancing), and 

(c) implemented suppression measures (containment as above, plus school and university closures). 

It turns out that as long as the measures remain in place, suppression wins out. In the graph below, the shaded blue area shows the period during which the measures are applied. Orange is containment and green is suppression. The red line shows capacity of critical-care beds. While the measures are in place, the green line stays safely under that red line, but the orange line doesn’t. 

But that’s only as long as the measures are in place. Look at this zoomed-out version of the graph, showing what happens when you relax the measures:

As soon as you let people out again, the disease comes raging back. And here’s the thing: the tighter the measures you implemented, the harder the virus hits the second time around, because fewer people have developed immunity through exposure. 

That’s why the government dragged its feet over closing schools. (Or that’s part of the reason, at least. Another part of the reason is that they worried that if they closed schools, a whole lot of medical staff wouldn’t be able to go to work because they would be at home looking after their children. And another part of the reason was, perhaps, that they were simply indecisive.)

This is not, of course, a good reason to expose as many people as possible to the disease, in an attempt to create “herd immunity”, an idea that the government briefly floated and then quickly denied having mentioned. Herd immunity is all well and good if you can achieve it through vaccines, which don’t, for the most part, kill people. If you try to achieve it by just letting people be exposed to a deadly disease and seeing who survives, you’re going to have a lot of casualties on the way. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam explain, “you need 60-70% of the population to be infected and recover to have a shot at herd immunity, and there aren’t that many young and healthy people in the UK, or anywhere.”

So for the moment, as long as we all stay barricaded within our homes, maintaining our social lives by Whatsapp, Zoom and, I am told by people more au fait with popular culture than I, “Houseparty”, we are safe. The only thing is this: we have to stay here. We have to stay here, alone, isolated and solitary, the dense web of society fragmented into millions of hermetically sealed units, for the next year, or 18 months, or however long it takes for a vaccine to be developed and distributed.

So you might as well make yourself comfortable. Wherever you are is where you’re going to be for a while yet.

3 thoughts on “You can’t come out

  1. The black line at the beginning looks about the same as that green line. I wonder what other factors contribute. Scary stuff. Looks like we are going to be blogging for a while! Here they extended the lock down until the 13th. I don’t know what happens after that.

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  2. I can’t imagine how any of these measures would help in the long term. Maybe they’re just hoping to keep things at bay long enough to find a cure/vaccine/better solution. Time will tell. In the meantime, the best we can do is follow direction as best we can and keep calm.

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