opinion

How to have a conversation with someone who is refusing to practise social distancing.

Right now, hundreds of millions of people all over the world are in lockdown. It is the largest quarantine in all of human history.

China, Italy, France, Denmark, El Salvador, Spain, Poland, Ireland, the UK and New Zealand have implemented restrictive mass quarantines, with dozens of other countries days or weeks away from likely having to make the same decision.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on

At last count, more than 858,892 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and 42,158 have died.

What’s more concerning than the numbers themselves, is the rate at which cases are growing.

Just one week ago, 471,035 had tested positive, and 21,282 had died. To highlight – both these figures have almost doubled in seven days. Here’s what the graph currently looks like:

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Latest coronavirus figures. Image via Worldometer.

What's the deal with Australia?

At last count, Australia has recorded 4,804 cases of the coronavirus and 20 deaths.

Again, to put that figure into context, that's where Spain was sitting less than three weeks ago.

Today, Spain has 95,923 cases of the coronavirus, and more than 8,464 people have died.

It's important to note that Spain is not a perfect comparison for Australia, and experts do not predict that Australia's trajectory will mirror Spain's.

Australia's testing, for example, has been far more rigorous, and there are already early signs that Australia is beginning to flatten the curve.

This is what Australia's current situation looks like.

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Australia's steep climb has begun to flatten. Image via Worldometer.
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Remind me what the Australian government have told us to do?

In fairness, this has been a little bit confusing and is constantly changing.

The first thing to know, is that if you have returned from overseas on or after March 15  then you must self-isolate for 14 days.

Your Covid-19 questions, answered. Post continues below. 

That means you must stay at home. No grabbing a coffee. No going to the shops. No work and no school. If you breach this directive, you could face $50,000 in fines or six months' jail time, depending on what state you live in.

The same goes for anyone who has been in contact with a confirmed case of the coronavirus.

For the rest of us, the instruction from the Australian government has been to practise social distancing. Any non-essential indoor gathering  or outdoor gatherings has a two person limit, with the exception of those who live within your household. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said all members of your household “can be together inside your home [and] outside your home”, but if you are not with the members of your household, you can only be with a maximum of one other person.

There are, however, a few footnotes to that rule. You can, legally, visit members of your family who you do not live with, and a partner who you do not live with.

If you are outside, exercising, seeking medical care, or shopping for supplies, you must keep a two metre distance from those around you. You can read a full list of the "reasonable excuses" to leave home, depending on the state you live in, right here.

As best we can, we should all be staying home.

If someone in your life is refusing to practise social distancing...

Despite clear guidelines and the possible penalties, including an $11,000 fine or six months imprisonment, some Australians are not, right now, practising social distancing.

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This might mean that they're having multiple people over for dinner, attending a boot camp at their local park with a class, or visiting a packed beach, where it's impossible to maintain space between people.

Here's how to change their mind

"Hang on.  The Australian government hasn't told everyone to stay home, so what's the problem?"

Essentially, that's what the government means by social distancing.

If you do not need to be out in public, then avoid it.

The best, most community-minded thing we can all do right now is stay at home. Here's a brilliant simulation by The Washington Post on how social distancing will flatten the curve. Flattening the curve (reducing the number of people who get the virus all at once) prevents our health system from getting overwhelmed.

If hospitals reach capacity, that means there will not be enough ventilators to treat all patients, resulting in the death toll being far higher than it needs to be. Furthermore, if you have a heart attack, stroke, or are in a car accident, there might not be a hospital bed for you.

That's why everyone keeps talking about flattening the curve.

"When I go outside I'm being safe..."

Let's be clear.

The coronavirus is at least twice as contagious as the flu.

Preliminary research suggests that the virus sticks to common surfaces, according to the Harvard Medical School:

  • For two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces
  • Up to 24 hours on cardboard
  • Four hours on copper
  • Up to three hours in the air as droplets

Consider that a wedding in NSW held on March 6 now has 37 confirmed cases on their guest list. That gives us some sense of the risk.

"I'm not sick though!"

Early studies estimate that 17.9 per cent of those infected remain asymptomatic.

Therefore, you could be carrying the virus and not know.

The onset of symptoms can also take up to 14 days.

Imagine that tomorrow you wake up with a cough and test positive for the coronavirus. You will be asked what your movements were in the last week or so. How many people could you potentially have infected?

Did you go to the gym? To the supermarket? Did you have dinner with friends and visit your grandmother?

It may sound like an overreaction, but consider South Korea's Patient 31.

By the time a 61-year-old woman tested positive for the coronavirus in South Korea, she had unwittingly spread the virus to thousands of people.

She attended church alongside more than one thousand people, twice, met a friend at a buffet lunch and took a taxi.

Her movements were responsible for a new epicentre in South Korea, and in early March it was reported that 63.5 per cent of all confirmed cases in the country were related to the church she attended.

"I'm young and healthy, so it's not going to get me"

Firstly, that's not true.

People of all ages are being diagnosed: from an 8-month-old infant in South Australia to children, teenagers and people in middle-age. And a small proportion of those also develop serious symptoms.

“When this takes off, it’s young people who hit your intensive care units,” physician Dr Norman Swan told ABC’s Coronacast podcast, “and you’re making decisions between a 40-year-old and a 60-year-old.”

As of March 31, the highest number of cases in Australia were recorded among people aged 25 to 29.

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Healthy men and women in their 30s and 40s, with no pre-existing illnesses, have died of the virus.

Secondly, social distancing isn't (just) about you. It's about protecting the most vulnerable.

By being out in public, you might pass on the illness to someone elderly or immunosuppressed.

The death rate of confirmed cases of patients over the age of 80 is 14.8 per cent. Roughly one in six.

So, even if you're young and healthy, you are putting lives at risk by living as though we're not in the midst of a pandemic. Which, surely we can all agree, is a shitty thing to do.

"Hang on. Isn't this just like the flu?"

No.

This is not like the flu.

Conservative estimates suggest the coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than the flu. And that doesn't take into consideration the knock-on effects from an overwhelmed health care system that can't treat peripheral health problems, like the aforementioned heart attack or stroke.

We also have some immunity to influenza because it's existed for so long. We have no immunity to the coronavirus, and it will take us, according to experts, 18 months or so to develop any.

There are more than 1.3 billion people in China. The entire country did not grind to a halt for the last two months for the flu.

In Italy, decisions have been made about whose lives are worth saving based on limited resources. According to reports, older patients have been left to die because there are not enough beds or medical personnel.

"You're just trying to make me panic."

We need to talk in facts and numbers, and right now, neither are particularly comforting.

This is not a media beat up or a conspiracy theory.

Mass panic is not productive. But we need to be vigilant because we are running out of time.

The decisions we make could be a matter of life or death.

Doctors and nurses are begging us to stay home because they are seeing firsthand the consequences of community transmission. What would be the motivation for medical professionals to exaggerate the current crisis?

A final note...

Let's imagine that as individuals we have two choices right now.

To 'underreact' or to 'overreact'.

Let's consider the stakes.

If we underreact and continue to live our lives as normal the worst case scenario is:

  • Contracting the coronavirus and falling very ill. In an unlikely case, this could mean death.
  • Transmitting the coronavirus to someone who is elderly or living with a pre-existing health condition and making them very ill. In an unlikely case, they could die from it.
  • Assisting in the spread of a deadly virus that will load up our health system, and compromise the health of other Australians.
  • You could be South Korea's Patient 31.

If we overreact the worst case scenario is: 

  • We miss out on things that will still be there once this crisis ends.
  • Boredom, loneliness and discomfort.

If you can live with the worst case scenario of not social distancing, then by all means, ignore the expert advice.

But I suspect most of us couldn't.

So stay home.

And maybe (hopefully) one day you can say: "See? That coronavirus wasn't so bad after all."

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