As COVID-19 spreads further and further, two different phrases can be heard quite often: “self-isolation” and “social distancing”. They might sound similar but their meanings are quite different. Self-isolation, or quarantine, is highly advisable to anyone who has symptoms or has been in contact with a person who has developed symptoms of the disease. A person in such a situation shouldn’t (or cannot if the quarantine is compulsory) leave the place in which they are staying. No visits, no shops, no outdoors, just daily life on one’s own. One person infected with SARS-Cov-2 infects 2.5 people on average. It might not sound like a lot (compare with measles – one person can infect 15 others), but in the case of a novel disease without a known cure it is absolutely vital to slow down the spread of the disease. This way we will not overwhelm the health system and we will protect the most vulnerable – “flattening the curve”. It is a noble aim, but it still sounds scary.
Humans are a social species and indeed a review published earlier this year examined the findings of 24 papers on the impact of self-isolation on people’s mental health. Quarantined people expressed emotional disturbance, depression, stress, low mood, insomnia or even post-traumatic stress symptoms. The main stressors are thought to be the duration of quarantine, fears of infection, and inadequate supplies and information. Some of these can be quite hard to combat on a personal level, especially if the isolation is compulsory. The paper suggests that governments should quarantine people for the shortest time possible, and supply all the necessary food, information, and entertainment. But boredom and lack of social interaction in the 21st century can be easily remedied with a good internet connection. Especially speaking to loved ones could help significantly to alleviate the stress.
On the other hand, “social distancing” should be practised by everyone in society, even without any symptoms. You should avoid public and crowded places, and generally stay at home, but if you keep a minimum distance of two metres from other people you should be fine going out for groceries or a walk. It might sound daunting but compared to the self-isolation scenario is not as big a sacrifice. Social distancing is the only way of stopping the pandemic before a cure or vaccine is created, especially as some scientists argue that the virus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers.
During the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, St. Louis, Missouri imposed strict social distancing measures after only the first couple of cases, banning gatherings of more than 20 people, and closing schools and churches. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Philadelphia imposed these measures very late allowing 200,000 people to parade through the city. As a result, the mortality rate in Philadelphia was twice as high as in St. Louis, which makes it a very good example of the effectiveness of social distancing.
Self-isolation might sound scary, and social distancing boring, but both are absolutely necessary. You can save lives and the only thing you need to do is stay at home.