As the number of coronavirus cases continues to surge around the globe, governments have imposed travel restrictions and urged people to reduce face-to-face interaction to contain the outbreak. As there is no vaccine currently — although several countries are presently carrying out trials — prevention is the only strategy.
The coronavirus generally spreads between people in close contact with one another, mainly through the droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Keeping the recommended distance of two meters, using a face mask, and quarantining those suspected of contact with an infected person are key prevention measures. For this reason, most governments are enforcing population-wide social distancing, home isolation of confirmed cases, and school and university closure.
Social distancing has proven to be a very effective measure: it sharply decreases the disease spread rate and is more effective the earlier it is employed. An infected person could spread the disease for several days before they show any symptoms; social distancing reduces the chances of healthy people coming in contact with an infected person, inhibiting virus transmission. As the only effective measure, social distancing therefore becomes everyone’s responsibility.
The history of social distancing and quarantining goes back at least 700 years — first employed in medieval Italy during the bubonic plague. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word for forty, with forty days being a period of quarantine. These measures were also used very effectively in the US during Spanish flu pandemic.
If strict social distancing is not practiced, the disease will spread unmanageably. This happened in Iran, which has the fourth-highest number of deaths, where there is evidence the government initially attempted a cover-up of the virus cases. With no preventive measures, the disease spread rapidly and led to over 2,500 deaths, in addition to affecting neighboring countries.
On the other hand, some countries have been criticized for engaging in draconian measures. However, the goal now is to save human lives — this is not the time to judge a country’s commitment to upholding civil liberties. A country engaging in extreme measures is arguably preferable to one engaging in no prevention. For comparison, in China, the outbreak is now considered contained, while in Iran, scores of people, having lost trust in their government and desperate to find a cure, had lost their lives by consuming methanol.
If the outbreak continues, not only will it put the present healthcare systems under immense stress, but it will also decrease our odds of finding an effective vaccine. Coronavirus is highly susceptible to mutation, and this could make it progressively harder to immunize against. There is evidence that it has already mutated into at least two strains, so the importance of prevention cannot be overstressed.
Many viral diseases have persisted among humans for a long time. Over time, societies develop “herd immunity”. This occurs when a significant portion of the population becomes immune to a disease, either through vaccination or past infection. This hinders the transmission of the disease, thereby shielding non-immune people. The coronavirus disease 2019 (abbreviated COVID-19) was previously unknown — and we therefore have no herd immunity against it, resulting in exponential spread.
In modern times, vaccination is also faced with opposition in many parts of the world. This distrust stems mainly from a lack of awareness as well as the process having been used as a political instrument in the past. For coronavirus elimination, it is therefore of prime importance to promote vaccine acceptance too. We must conform to these preventive measures until a vaccine is widely available, which is expected to take twelve to eighteen months at least. Most sports facilities, cinemas, libraries, and museums are no longer open; competitions and concerts have been postponed. We humans are very sociable beings and have evolved to survive in groups and maintain close social interaction. Inevitably then, distancing ourselves from friends and staying in most of the time is hard and demoralizing.
For us students, it becomes even more important to maintain a healthy lifestyle for strong academic performance. It is necessary to find ways to stay energetic and motivated. KAIST students seem to never get enough sleep during the semester, so use this time to get a healthy amount of daily sleep. Also, make a habit of taking a walk or going for a run (at a time when few people are around, such as early morning, and taking precautionary measures). Maintain contact with family and friends through social media. If someone you know is observing quarantine, check if it is possible to offer help and support in a safe manner.