These are unprecedented times. I think people are waking up quickly (some faster than others) that the coronavirus threat is very real, and it is not just something happening to someone in some obscure corner of the world. It is everywhere. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the next best option of social distancing has been first recommended and then required in most parts of the world. In the US we are in a 15-day period of advised social distancing and depending on which state you are, the strictness and enforcement varies. For the most part the country has come to a pause. All businesses and workplaces have closed and only grocery stores and restaurants (with takeout and delivery only) have been allowed to function. Currently the question on everyone’s mind is when do things get back to normal? When does the economy reopen? When can we start meeting people like we normally do again? The answer is probably what you may think it is. No one knows exactly for sure. But we are not completely in the blind and given what we already know, we can make an educated guess and that’s what I would like to do.
Let’s start with the basics. We keep hearing the phrase ‘Flatten the Curve’ a lot, but what does it even mean? The curve here refers to a graph of the number of infected people by the Coronavirus versus time. Obviously, the number of cases were initially zero (at a good time when no one was infected), and then started increasing. As the virus continued to spread, more people caught it and the graph started rising. Let’s look at China’s graph.
Towards the end of January, China started testing extensively. In about ten days, the number of active infected cases had been identified to be around 20,000! In twenty days, the number of cases had doubled to nearly 40,000. This is a rising curve. Somewhere around Feb 17th, the number of cases reaches its peak. Notice the days between Feb 14th to Feb 20th (the ones marked in orange between points B and C) where the curve is not rising sharply anymore. In fact, it is becoming flatter, and beyond Feb 20th, we see a drop in the number of infected cases! The implemented shutdown measures are working, the curve has peaked and then flattens and finally falls. For the curve to drop (which signifies that the number of infected people is reducing), it must first stop rising sharply and then start flattening. If we test extensively and quarantine well and take good measures, the curve will not be a sharp, tall one but one which peaks lower and is more flatter in nature which means that the rate of increase of the number of cases is lesser (the virus is spreading less quickly), and the peak is lower (the maximum number of people the virus affected is lesser). This is why flattening the curve is important. The graph below provides a good understanding.
As of March 25th, the infected number of cases in China had dropped significantly enough that China feels it can reopen its economy. All this tells us a few things:
1. Social distancing and shutting down the country along with imposing travel restrictions work. China was very strict on this and enforced it well.
2. It took China around six-eight weeks to recover.
China has begun to reopen the economy in phases, and we can all hope and pray that there is no relapse and that the number of infections drop to zero. One could now think that China being a larger population and the source of the virus probably had it the hardest and other countries will not face the same wrath of the virus. This is probably what most of us thought initially and perhaps why some have not taken this seriously. That assumption is simply wrong. Case in point being Italy where the virus hit very hard. And if you had not already heard it, as of today (March 27th), USA has the most infections (85,000) in the whole world. This should hopefully be enough to wake the remaining people up. The curve has begun to flatten in Italy. South Korea and Hong Kong did a commendable job in flattening it very quickly. India should also be applauded for quick action. As of this writing India has 800 cases (compared to a population of 1.33 billion) and has enforced a strict 21-day national shutdown and for the most part people are taking this very seriously.
Now let’s look at USA’s graph:
As can be seen, the curve has not even begun to flatten. And it is still rising! If we compare it to the Chinese graph, we are somewhere between points A and B. If I must guess I would say somewhere around the middle. We can’t be sure exactly where between A and B we are because we don’t know where the curve will peak. But where the curve peaks and where it flattens and how fast all this happens really depends on two things:
1. The government steps up the number of people being tested. It stops the spread by quarantining the infected and treating them effectively.
2. People take things seriously and don’t wait for the government to enforce stricter rules. From beach parties in Florida to even people in NY parks playing basketball and other team sports and hanging out in large numbers etc., people are still not doing it. It means we might not beat this soon.
If you thought life can go back to normal after the 15-day period ends in March, know that this is not the case. It is not even going to be a week or two beyond March, it is going to be much longer. If the economy for some funny reason is restarted before people are treated and the curve flattens, we are looking at potential chaos and unpredictability and undoing any good the 15-day period did. Ad hoc measures will not do. The virus will not die because you gave it respect and ceased to do things for 15-days, it will continue to do what it does. It is up to us to react well. Bill Gates has suggested severe national shutdown for six-ten weeks. That sounds like a good idea. A national shut down is something which US has still not done, policy on the strictness seems to vary from state to state which does not make much sense. The reasoning may have to do with where the impacts of the virus have been higher and which regions are denser but that does not matter. Even in states where the number of cases is lesser currently, it can all change very fast because the virus spreads exponentially. It does not make sense to do halfhearted measures and be stuck with this for several months. Might as well do everything possible and hope to turn things around quickly.
The Chinese shutdown was nationwide and included sealing off the initial epicenter Wuhan along with 15 other cities where the virus hit hard. Testing was extensive and they handled the hospitalizations and quarantining very effectively. There has not (yet) been any sealing off areas hit hard in the United States and there has been a shortage of testing along with equipment.
Bottom line: If we do like the Chinese did, we might be able to beat this in two more months. Expect the life that you are seeing right now (and possibly a harder version of it if the government tightens the screws), till at least the mid or end of May. Given that the testing has not been that extensive, there has not been a national shut down or sealing off regions, and a lot of people are still being reckless, this could take even longer. This is not to scare you; this is to help prepare you (and me). Make plans to care of your physical and emotional health. Do workouts at home, go for walks where there are less people (and even then, follow the guidelines of 3-6 feet away from people) or go cycling. Text, talk to people over the phone and video call often. Social media might finally be truly useful to help people stay connected. Form plans for your life, this a very good time to sit and think. It is a great period to pick up meditation. If you are living with someone, that helps with not feeling socially isolated. If you are living alone (like me), then having one or two people you can meet physically, every now and then will be a good idea. Balance the social element while being very precautious. Currently I am meeting just one other person, my neighbor and the only person he is meeting is me which reduces the odds of either of us getting infected (or transmitting infections to someone else) while having some human element and maintaining our sanity.
We are in this together and it will be a while. It can be faster if we help each other out and act sensibly.