As a scientist at the beginning of 2020, looking at past pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu, Cholera and the Black Death, the potential that this unknown rising virus had was unthinkable. At first, people thought that it would arise to nothing, blanket statements of ‘don’t panic’ could be heard all over the news. However, a year on since the first recorded cases, the Coronavirus outbreak has the potential to become one of the deadliest pandemics of all time, with millions of deaths predicted worldwide by the end of 2021.
However, what is unnerving is the number of people who still do not take this virus and the precautions put in place, such as lockdowns and social distancing, seriously; “Seasonal flu kills more people than COVID-19”, “…lockdown will do nothing…”, “…we should just let the virus run its course…”, are among some of the statements we hear regularly.
So why are measures such as lockdowns and social distancing important during this pandemic?
Well, there is something called the basic reproduction number. This is the number of people that can catch the virus from an infected person, assuming there is no immunity. For example, if you are infected with the virus and infect your partner, Grandma and neighbour, then you’ve infected 3 people in total. Think of this as a chain reaction, you infect some people, they themselves then go on to infect others, and so the chain continues, and the infection levels increase.
What is not known, is what the average rate of infection is for COVID-19.
It appears that this number is variable, when we are not socially distancing and wearing masks, that rate is higher because more people are being infected by the virus. If there is a lockdown, and people are isolating, then this rate will reduce and, generally, the virus will be spread in smaller numbers. As a rule, the stronger the lockdown, the more the rate will drop.
Now, let’s put this in the perspective of healthcare capacity. If we let the virus roam free, with no restrictions, then the virus reproduction number would increase. There are restricted bed spaces as well as limited numbers of doctors and nurses, and the higher that reproduction number gets, more people will require hospitalisation. This will result in more people receiving inadequate treatment as a result of an overwhelmed NHS. Put simply, if we stay at home, that virus reproduction number decreases, and the NHS can run safely – providing care to those who desperately need it.
PhD Student – National Horizons Centre (Teesside University)