Science Reveals the Shockingly Simple Step You Can Take to Stop COVID-19
Hint: It’s not quarantines or masks
If you want to keep a rabbit population in check, killing rabbits doesn’t help.
Sound like the most bizarre hook for an article you’ve ever read? Let’s take a step back for a moment.
Rabbits are among the most prolific breeders in the animal kingdom. A single female rabbit can have up to 12 babies every 30 days. In less than six months, all of those rabbits can then start making little rabbits of their own.
In 3 years, one mommy rabbit can produce 50,000+ descendants. Unconstrained, in 7 years, she could have 95 billion. Rabbit populations are a classic example of exponential growth. They build slowly at first, and then quickly mushroom to outlandish numbers.
So why isn’t the world overrun by hundreds of billions of rabbits? Because the environment only has the capacity to support a certain finite number of their fluffy ilk.
Hit that number, and it doesn’t matter how fast your bunnies breed. There aren’t enough resources to support more, and the population levels off. That critical number is called the “carrying capacity” of the environment.
When smart ecologists want to control a population of rabbits (or, more often, rats in a city), they don’t go around committing bunny genocide and knocking off individuals. The population would just replenish itself in a few months. Instead, they work to reduce the carrying capacity of the environment.
Want fewer rabbits? Build up the local wolf and fox population. These native predators eat the rabbits (sorry, Bugs), keeping their numbers in check. Or reduce their food supply. Or take away the places they hide and breed. All these moves reduce the carrying capacity of the environment. It’s the only way to keep an exponentially-growing population in check.
At first glimpse, fluffy bunny rabbits and the murderous particles of the COVID-19 coronavirus don’t seem to have much in common. But actually, they follow the exact same mathematics.
During an epidemic (or a pandemic), viruses are exactly like breeding bunnies. One infected person can infect 10 others, who quickly infect 10 more, and so on. The population of infected people can grow slowly, and then quickly skyrocket as exponential dynamics come online.
Weirdly, for a virus to really take hold, it can’t be too deadly. Ebola is an exquisitely, horrifically deadly virus, killing more than 90% of people who contract it. Ironically, that’s also its downfall. People with ebola are so sick that they don’t walk around infecting others. And the virus kills so quickly that it generally burns itself out before it spreads beyond small regions.
COVID-19 is different. It kills about 2% of the people who contract it. That’s deadly enough to be concerning. But it’s also mild enough that people with the disease can walk around for days or weeks, spreading the virus to others. That’s part of why it’s jumped across countries and continents.
What can society do to stop it? Well for one thing, treating individuals is great, but it won’t do much to stop the virus.
Treating specific people is like killing rabbits. When you isolate a person and support them through the disease, you’re taking one infected member out of the population. But as long as there are 100 others walking around, the infection is still going to spread. And it will spread faster than you can treat infected individuals.
Should we throw all patients out of the hospital and let them fend for themselves? Of course not. But we can’t expect to stop a pandemic by treating patients one at a time.
What does stop pandemics? Like with controlling rabbit populations (or any other exponentially increasing population), it’s all about altering the environment. If you reduce the carrying capacity of the environment, you can stop the disease from continuing to spread — or at least slow it down to a manageable level.
At a societal level, one way to do this is through quarantines. China is certainly taking this approach at a massive scale. By isolating people from each other, you’re altering the environment of their interactions, and potentially slowing down the virus’ spread.
But in many cases with quarantines and other big changes to daily life, the cure is worse than the disease. Quarantines, closed factories, and social isolation all contribute towards tanking a country’s economy. According to Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, US growth in Q1 has already slowed to just 1.2% as a result of the coronavirus. And China is even harder hit.
The relationship between GDP and mortality is complex. On the one hand, quarantined (or laid off) people aren’t driving around, so they get into fewer accidents. But they’re also more at risk for suicide and homicide.
And if a decrease in GDP becomes prolonged and bumps people down into lower socioeconomic classes, it can lead to profoundly worse health outcomes. According to data from South Africa, poorer people died 7–10x more frequently than their richer peers.
So while shutting a country down can lower the carrying capacity of your environment and help stop a virus from spreading, it comes with unintended (and often invisible) costs.
Something similar happened after 9/11 in the United States. The horrific terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC killed 2,996 people. But in the months after, there were even more unnecessary deaths.
Why? Terrified of flying, more people took to the roads for travel. This resulted in a big uptick in road accidents, many of them fatal. According to data from a German study, 1,595 more Americans died on the road in the years after 9/11 than in normal times.
Avoiding one risk (airplane hijackings and terrorism) led to another risk (auto accidents), which ultimately claimed half as many lives as the attacks themselves.
This highlights the importance of looking at COVID-19 prevention in a more holistic way. Yes, you can close down whole countries. This will reduce the carrying capacity of the environment, helping to stop more infections. But it could also lead to unintended consequences — like a drop in GDP or an increase in suicides — that could prove worse than the virus itself.
What if we all wore masks around at all times? This is already happening in many countries. You can no longer buy masks on Amazon, except at exorbitant prices. On a trip to a local hospital yesterday in the San Francisco Bay Area, the masks which are usually handed out like candy during flu season were nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a dire sign warning people to only take masks if they are truly sick.
Here’s the bad news. Basic surgical masks might help protect others from you if you’re infected (by keeping your sneezes contained). But if people around you are infected, a basic mask won’t help you avoid contamination. The only thing that will is an actual respirator, with a N95 or higher rating.
Should you go buy these now (if they’re even still available)?
Maybe, if you’re feeling especially selfish. Remember, the world’s supply of approved regulators is constrained right now. If you’re buying respirators just to stock up, it’s possible you’re taking them away from a health care professional who truly needs them. Already, at least six healthcare workers have died as a result of treating patients with the virus, and these deaths are largely attributed to inadequate protection.
Like quarantines, respirators lower the carrying capacity of the environment — but wearing them also has unintended consequences. If the world had enough for everyone, maybe they would be a good solution. But if you’re a healthy person hoarding them for future use (especially in a rich country), you’re likely taking them away from people (or doctors and nurses) who need them much more than you do.
So if quarantines cause additional risks, and respirators are morally fraught, what can you actually do to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
The answer is so simple that it’s almost too boring to believe: wash your hands more often.
According to both the World Health Organization and CDC, proper hand hygiene is the most effective way to prevent the spread of viruses. You can wash with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re doing it frequently. Oh, and stop touching your face.
The remarkable truth? Up to 30% of people don’t wash their hands. And this can have a real impact on the spread of an epidemic. According to a recent study reported in Medical News Today, if just 60% of air travelers maintained clean hands, this would cut down on the spread of diseases including COVID-19 by almost 70%.
That’s a remarkable reduction, representing hundreds or thousands of deaths avoided. And that’s just from air travelers (a common vector for spreading viruses) keeping their hands clean. If we all washed our hands frequently and properly, the impact on epidemics would likely be even more profound.
In many ways, this makes a ton of sense. Proper hand hygiene makes it harder for viruses to spread from person to person. It reduces the carrying capacity of the environment — dramatically so. It’s also incredibly cheap, and something everyone can do, with none of the unintended consequences which haunt quarantines and respirators.
Hopefully, the ultimate environment-altering factor will come along soon, and stop COVID-19 in its tracks: a vaccine. But in the meanwhile, there’s already an incredibly simple, cheap, concrete step we can all take to help stop the virus’ spread.
So stop buying ineffective and morally-fraught masks and respirators, get out of your house (unless an authority has ordered you to stay there) — and wash your damn hands.