On virus containment as dieting

The Protezione Civile, the Italian equivalent of FEMA, holds a daily press conference to announce coronavirus data from the previous 24 hours. Today they had relatively good news, of which we hope to hear more soon. The Protezione Civile puts a lot of data online every day, on github, which allows any interested party to monitor the situation and will allow people in other countries to see the effect of our various restrictive measures over time.

The graph below, which is courtesy of Carlo Lucibello, shows the number of deaths in Italy on a logarithmic scale, compared with data from China from 36 days before.
(Image credit: Carlo Lucibello)

At the start, Italian deaths rose like in China, at the same exponential rate. About twenty days after the lockdown of Wuhan, the Chinese data started deviating from the exponential rate and leveled off. In Italy, about ten days ago, there was a slowdown, which followed the institution of the “yellow zone” by about 15 days. The “yellow zone” measures closed schools, universities, museums, cinemas, and clubs, and restricted hours of bars and coffee shops, in Lombardy. Apparently, although these measures made a difference, they still allowed the spread of the virus to continue at an exponential rate.

On March 8, Lombardy was put on a stricter lockdown, with travel restrictions, and on March 10 the lockdown was extended to the rest of the country. So we may hope to see a stronger slowdown and maybe a leveling-off two or three weeks after these measures, that is, any day now. It may seem premature to ask this question, but what happens next?

Today the Italian government announced additional measures to facilitate “social distancing,” halting all “non-essential” manufacturing and other work activities, forbidding people from leaving the house to walk or jog (even alone), and further restricting the cases in which it is allowed to travel between different cities.

These measures, which apply nationwide, are meant to be in place for two weeks. They will be economically devastating (even more so than the already devastating nationwide lockdown of March 10), and they will be difficult to keep in place for longer than the expected two weeks.

When a nationwide “lockdown” was first instituted, the prime minister announced it by saying “let’s be distant today in order to more warmly hug each other tomorrow”. In general, the spirit of these measures has been to suffer for a short time and then return to normal.

This feels like the national mood in general, and the government took today’s further restrictive measures somewhat reluctantly, because there was strong popular support for them.

Here I am worried that we are approaching this crisis the way many people attempt to lose weight: by going on a starvation diet, then losing some weight, then celebrating and finally gaining back more weight than they lost.

The point being that I worry about what will happen once the worst is over and these restrictive measures will be lifted. Until there is a vaccine or a cure, we will not be able to really go back to normal, and we will have to make some sustainable “lifestyle changes” to “maintain” what we got, just like people who maintain weight loss for a long time do so by making sustainable changes for the long term.

Concretely, we will need a very efficient system to monitor new cases and trace contacts, perhaps similar to Taiwan’s, and to follow the kind of stricter hygiene precautions in public places that have been common in East Asia since SARS. Let’s hope that we will have to worry about such problems soon.

5 thoughts on “On virus containment as dieting

  1. Your concern is quite valid. The risk would be there for a year may be and if people goes back to old habits, there would be waves of surge (unless some kind of “herd immunity” emerges). Clearly, this is very contagious . Following only hand hygiene is not enough. If one is going to supermarkets or travelling in public transport, one should wear proper mask to reduce risk.

  2. There is still much data missing, but it looks like there is a real possibility that if the numbers start to fall soon that will be because of herd immunity rather than due to the quarantine. If that is the case (and no one will know for sure before widespread serologic tests are done), then there will be no reason to keep the diet on (and sadly, it will also suggest that economic damage was completely unnecessary).

  3. @Moran: Zogno is a small town with less than 9,000 people. Between February 22 and March 22, 2020, 78 people died there. That’s nearly 1% of everybody, and at most 100% of people from Zogno had been infected. If we had reached herd immunity levels in Italy, which might require about 60% of infections, we would have noticed.

  4. Glad to see the recent growth in Italy is slowing down. Based on numbers alone looks like Spain/France/UK and NY are going to be hit harder.

  5. Pingback: Pandemic 6: safer at home | Quomodocumque

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