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Illustrasjon: Renate Rognan / Anders Hofseth / NRK

Social distancing against Corona explained

These days a lot of people are sitting at home – why are we doing it?

A lot of people around the world, including the people making the article you're now reading, are currently at home, trying to work, amid our kids and our worries. Together we're trying to halt the spread of the Corona virus by avoiding other people, – even though we aren't ill ourselves. But why? How does this national and global common effort work?

Let us take a closer look at Dottytown – a very simplified society inspired by the Washington Post Corona Simulator.

skisse_smittesimulator_grid_fra_renate2-ENINTENSIVE CARE UNITOVERFLOWNOT INFECTEDILLHOSPITALISEDRECOVERED / IMMUNE
Dottytownites who aren't yet infected are blue.
Red dots carry the virus, and may become ill, some so severely that they will need hospitalisation.
When a dot has recovered, it turns green. It can no longer infect others, and also won't fall ill again – it is at least this simple in Dottytown.
Because the virus is spreading quickly, Dottytown Hospital is not able to treat all patients.

The Corona virus is very contagious, and is transferred quickly between humans – through droplets in the air, or surfaces we touch.

Here you can see what happens when a virus is spreading unrestrained:

At first, only one is infected.
In a few days, the number of infected people doubles, and keeps doubling.
All the doubling makes it increase quickly from tens…
To hundreds…
To several thousand.

How severely ill people get varies a lot. Many won't be very affected, and recover quickly.

But some are seriously ill, and will need to be hospitalised for weeks, often because of severe lung inflammation. Then they will need help breathing.

The mechanical ventilators, beds and staff occupied for treating Corona patients are the same needed after a car accident, a house fire, or an operation.

Respirator

Mechanical ventilators are used in treatment of severe cases

Foto: Getty Images/iStock

When there are many cases at the same time, it will impact all the people the hospitals would normally be treating too.

"Flattening the curve" is commonly known in pandemic research, and has been mentioned a lot in media lately:

Without efforts, many fall ill quickly
If infection is slowed down via efforts, we have better control

We can see that if we're able to slow down how quickly the virus is transmitted from person to person sufficiently, the hospital capacity will not collapse.

Fyrstikker som illustrerer smittekjede

Matches illustrating a chain of infection

Foto: Otto Fearnley

We are able to stop the transfer of the virus – just like the picture of matchsticks you might have seen in social media lately, and that we've reconstructed here. If we stay at home and avoid contact with others, the virus cannot travel.

Let us see what happens in Dottytown if fewer of the inhabitants are moving around:

skisse_smittesimulator_grid_fra_renate2-ENINTENSIVE CARE UNITOVERFLOWNOT INFECTEDILLHOSPITALISEDRECOVERED / IMMUNE
The virus is spreading at a lower rate
Most of the times you run the simulation, Dottytown Hospital will be able to handle the flow of patients.
If sufficiently few Dottytownites are moving around, the infection will even recede before everyone has been infected.

Those who aren't infected might still catch the virus later. But if we're able to delay the spread, we achieve three things:

  • The health system can save more people – both those with Covid-19, and others needing intensive care
  • More time for developing a vaccine and testing medicines, so that more people can avoid getting seriously ill
  • Important institutions can be kept afloat; the paramedic won't be infected while buying food

While you're staying indoors, you could experiment a little with the controllers below, and see what it takes for Dottytown to keep its virus in check.

skisse_smittesimulator_grid_fra_renate2-ENINTENSIVE CARE UNITOVERFLOWNOT INFECTEDILLHOSPITALISEDRECOVERED / IMMUNE

The common effort we're now doing together is maybe one of the most important things we're doing since World War II. The way you can contribute, is by doing two things:

  1. Don't catch the virus yet
  2. Don't pass the virus on yet

You do this by being in contact with fewer people – both directly, and through things they've been in contact with – and by being very thorough with hygiene and washing your hands.