Coronavirus:  Let’s Come Together, by Staying Apart

Staying in A Small Sacrifice with Great Impact, Says MIT Professor

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Dr. Richard Larson. Courtesy the subject

Rarely in life are we encouraged to be selfish – let alone told this selfish deed is actually an altruistic act. But now, with the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, we all have such an opportunity.

Over the past few days, the news cycle has sounded like the beginning of an apocalypse movie –  President Trump announced a 30-day travel ban from all European countries, members of Congress are under quarantine, dozens of colleges and universities have canceled live face-to-face classes – shifting to virtual internet-based instruction, and the stock market has plummeted. Within these headlines, a lot of statistics are tossed around referencing the inevitability that the majority of us will become infected.

Some articles say almost 70 percent of us will get Coronavirus while others announce a more conservative 50 percent. But these predictions are not set in stone – they change as our actions do. We do not have to sit idly by and wait for the apocalypse to claim us as the next victim!  We each have an opportunity to reduce the chances of infection – by social distancing and attentive hygienic behaviors.

Social distancing – the physical separation of people – comes in many forms.  In the most basic sense, this means not getting “too close” to others.  Work from home as often as possible, especially if your daily commute involves crowded subways or busses.  Go to meetings virtually.  Don’t handshake, but elbow bump or bow (as in Thailand).  In an elevator, decline getting in if it is already at 50 percent capacity and wait for the next elevator – as they are now doing in China.  If you do have to go to work, refuse to sit face to face in a closed space with a co-worker.

Great hygiene comes by washing your hands many times a day with soap and hot water.  If you must cough or sneeze, do it into your elbow or a handkerchief, not into your hand.  Avoid touching surfaces that could be contaminated with virus particles and repeatedly clean surfaces – such as smart phone screens – with disinfectant.  Most importantly, and it seems to be the hardest to implement, don’t touch your mouth, nose or eyes, as those can be expressways for infection.

Each act described is self-focused, or “selfish,” as it reduces your own personal chance of becoming infected.  However, if you were to become infected, chances are you would infect others too. Maybe only one other person, but also maybe 30!  Saving yourself from Coronavirus infection saves others from the infection that you would otherwise pass on to them.

With the Coronavirus, as it’s now functioning, epidemiologists estimate that each newly infected person can be expected to infect two or three additional persons on average.  However, you can change that, saving loved ones, friends and colleagues from getting an infection from you.  So be selfish, stay healthy and benefit others.

This is an example of “Reverse Tragedy of the Commons.”  The better-known “Tragedy of the Commons” often told in terms of dairy farmers placing too many cows on Boston Common, is a metaphor for people’s overuse of some freely available public resource, like water, grass land, air, roadways, ocean fish, etc. Eventually the system collapses when people follow their own immediate self-interests.  In reverse mode, as we have argued, selfish behavior may in fact save our system from collapse.

Regarding the total percentage of us becoming infected, with aggressive social distancing and proactive hygiene measures, we collectively may be able to reduce current estimates by half or even three quarters, which would make a huge difference. In addition to reducing total number of infections, these steps would stretch out over time the reduced epidemic curve.  With the resulting lower “peaks,” surges in hospitals will be greatly reduced, allowing stressed medical professionals to devote more time to each patient and to have available the hospital equipment and facilities required, especially for the most serious patients.

If we all were able to act selfishly, keeping our distances, the predictions of the epidemiologists about each person infecting two or three others would drastically decline. In that case, we ourselves have the power to defeat the disease, even without a vaccine. By standing apart, we stand together!

Dr. Richard Larson is a post-tenure professor at MIT and past president of INFORMS, Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. Dr. Larson previously served as a principal investigator of pandemic research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.