Social Distancing using Play-Doh and Matches

There has been much talk about using social distancing as a response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Here’s a video of how social distancing can be used:

  • Close Contact, where the population is infected very rapidly. This is not A Good Thing – the national health service is overwhelmed, and the death rate goes up as a result
  • Extreme Distancing, where the viral spread takes too long. This is not A Good Thing – the social and economic costs are huge
  • Optimal Distancing, where the spread is controlled and the human, social, and economic costs are optimized. This is A Good Thing. It is also very tricky to get right.

Coronavirus: The First Big Test of Behavioral Science

The United Kingdom is at a crossroads, an ideological battle between natural science and behavioral science. Let’s hope for all our sakes we get this one right.

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, is facing a dilemma. When do we go from the so-called containment phase for controlling Covid-19 Coronavirus, to the delay phase.

In the medical / natural science corner, is the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, who has presented himself calmly, reassuringly, as completely on top of his brief. He is a physician and an epidemiologist (as well as a lawyer, and an MBA). His evidence at the newly formed House of Commons Coronavirus Committee was calm, frank, precise. He is exactly the sort of advisor that any government would be proud to have. Flatten the peak. Delay the virus spread. Keep the height of the peak low. Save lives.

Mitigation efforts like social distancing help reduce the disease caseload on any given date, and can keep the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
Image: New York Times adapted from CDC/Economist https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/science/coronavirus-curve-mitigation-infection.html

In the behavioral science corner is, well, I am not sure who. Maybe it’s the Chief Scientific Advisor, who highlighted the need to take account of behavioral science. Yes, please do. It’s a wicked problem, and please include more complex social modelling.

But what we are now seeing is what the Director General of the World Health Organization (up until now also criticised for its seemingly political response to the issue) could be referring to as ‘alarming levels of inaction’.

I do hope, however, that Boris Johnson is being guided by the science, both behavioral and epidemiological, and not by advisors who profess to be superforecasters. You don’t have to be a superforecaster to forecast that if we get this wrong, many will die unnecessarily.

Contagion: How to Model It and What R-nought (R0) Actually Means

The 2011 film Contagion, starring the spectacularly ill-fated Gwyneth Paltrow, is a dramatization of a viral pandemic starting in pretty analagous circumstances to the current Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak. It’s a good film, and is a great introduction to the work of Centers for Disease Control (CDCs) that monitor the spread – the epidemiology – of the disease. There are two scenes where R-nought, or R0, are described:

Despite the blogger character in the clip describing the spread, using a R0 of 2, as being a problem you can do on a napkin, it takes a little more thinking about. He also seems a bit confused about R0, talking about growth from 2 to 4 to 16, to 256, to 65,536 each day. That’s not what R0 is – it is not a rate, and actually if the rate was 2, this would mean 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 etc., each time doubling the number. It is possible that he is thinking that there are two generations each per day, but that’s not whatR0 is.

So, on to the professionals:

The CDC epidemiologist in the clip is more on point (despite having sloppy notation with no subscripts). This is better – it shows the reproduction number for the infection – note again, this is not a rate – no time dimension is involved – it basically shows the number of cases on average each case generates.

This population modelling – so called SIR (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered) system dynamics modelling – is just one of several approaches that can be used to model contagion across a population. My recent paper ‘Spatial Transmission Models: A Taxonomy and Framework’ sets out a review of what they are and the advantages and disadvantages of each. In brief, we can model the population numbers, the individual agents that carry the virus, the network of contacts between infected individuals, or the regions or cells in which individuals are located (city districts, for example). The paper is available to read by clicking on the link here.