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The Math Behind Social Distancing

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The math behind social distancing

The Math Behind Social Distancing

As we wait for scientists and healthcare professionals to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, there is another, more readily available tool at our disposal.

Social distancing, defined as measures taken to reduce physical contact, is the first line of defense for containing an infectious disease like COVID-19. That’s because these infections spread when people cough, sneeze, or touch surfaces on which the virus resides.

To help us grasp the impact these measures can actually have, today’s infographic illustrates how a reduction in social exposure can theoretically contain the spread of infection.

Theoretical Potential

The calculations used to create today’s infographic come from Signer Laboratory, a stem cell research lab located in the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego.

Using a summation formula makes it possible to estimate the number of new infections over a 30 day period, across three scenarios.

Scenario5 Day Period30 Day Period
No social distancing practiced1 person infects 2.5* others406 people infected as a result
50% reduction in social exposure1 person infects 1.25* others15 people infected as a result
75% reduction in social exposure1 person infects 0.625* others2.5 people infected as a result

*For estimations only. It is not possible to infect only a fraction of another person.

To arrive at the figures reported above, Robert A.J. Signer, Ph.D., and his team made a number of key assumptions.

First, they estimated the basic reproduction number (R0) of COVID-19 to be 2.5, a figure supported by recent research. This means that, on average, an infected individual will spread the disease to 2.5 other people.

Next, they assumed that an infected individual will unknowingly spread COVID-19 over the median five day incubation period. After this period, the individual will begin to develop symptoms, immediately self quarantine, and no longer pose a threat.

Finally, they assumed a direct linear correlation between social interactions and R0. This means that when an infected person reduces their physical contact with others by 50%, they also spread the disease by an amount 50% less.

Timing is Everything

While the figures above are the results of mathematical estimations, researchers have actually studied social distancing from a variety of angles.

One study used simulations to determine the magnitude and timing of social distancing measures required to prevent a pandemic. The distancing measures simulated were:

MeasureDetails
School closureTeachers and students spent weekday daytime cycles at home, rather than at school.
Increased case isolationUpon becoming symptomatic, adults (90%) and children (100%) would self quarantine for the duration of the infection.
Workplace non-attendanceEach day, a person had a 50% chance of staying home instead of attending their workplace.
Community contact reductionIndividuals reduced their physical contact with community members by half, each day.
Combination of all fourAll four measures combined. 

The results, for a community of 30,000 people and an epidemic with R=2.5, are charted below. We can define the final illness attack rate as the share of people from an at risk population who ultimately catch the disease.

power of early social distancing

Results showed that when no action was taken, 65% of the population contracted the disease. However, if a combination of all four distancing measures were implemented instead, the attack rates were:

  • 45% (distancing begins after a 4 week delay)
  • 21% (distancing begins after a 3 week delay)
  • 7% (distancing begins after a 2 week delay)

What’s clear is that social distancing was significantly more effective when implemented with minimal delay—the final illness attack rate rose quickest beyond the third week. These findings draw a parallel to the visualizations in today’s infographic, which showed us just how quickly a disease can spread.

Social distancing interventions are important as they represent the only … measure guaranteed to be available against a novel strain of influenza in the early phases of a pandemic.

Kelso, J.K., Milne, G.J. & Kelly, H., BMC Public Health 9, 117 (2009)

We arrive at a similar conclusion when it comes to the types of distancing measures implemented. In the simulations, none of the four measures taken on their own were able to have a similar effect as when they were combined.

We All Have a Part to Play

With the global number of COVID-19 cases still rising, many governments have issued quarantine orders and travel bans.

The math supports these decisions—reducing our physical contact with others, even when we aren’t experiencing any symptoms, is crucial. Studies like the one summarized above also prove that taking action sooner, rather than later, can go a long way in reducing the spread of infection.

The key takeaway from all of this? Social distancing is a powerful disease control tool, but only if we all participate.

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What’s At Risk: An 18-Month View of a Post-COVID World

The WEF surveyed 347 risk analysts to uncover the most likely post-pandemic threats—and no area from the economy to the environment is untouched.

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What’s At Risk: An 18-Month View of a Post-COVID World

As the world continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, no part of society seems to be left unscathed. Fears are surmounting around the economy’s health, and dramatic changes in life as we know it are also underway.

In today’s graphic, we use data from a World Economic Forum survey of 347 risk analysts on how they rank the likelihood of major risks we face in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What are the most likely risks for the world over the next year and a half?

The Most Likely Risks

In the report, a “risk” is defined as an uncertain event or condition with the potential for significant negative impacts on various countries and industries. The 31 risks have been grouped into five major categories:

  • Economic: 10 risks
  • Societal: 9 risks
  • Geopolitical: 6 risks
  • Technological: 4 risks
  • Environmental: 2 risks

Among these, risk analysts rank economic factors high on their list, but the far-reaching impacts of the remaining factors are not to be overlooked either. Let’s dive deeper into each category.

Economic Shifts

The survey reveals that economic fallout poses the most likely threat in the near future, dominating four of the top five risks overall. With job losses felt the world over, a prolonged recession has 68.6% of experts feeling worried.

RankEconomic Risk%
#1Prolonged recession of the global economy68.6%
#2Surge in bankruptcies (big firms and SMEs) and a wave of industry consolidation56.8%
#3Failure of industries or sectors in certain countries to properly recover55.9%
#4High levels of structural unemployment (especially youth)49.3%
#6Weakening of fiscal positions in major economies45.8%
#7Protracted disruption of global supply chains42.1%
#8Economic collapse of an emerging market or developing economy38.0%
#16Sharp increase in inflation globally20.2%
#20Massive capital outflows and slowdown in foreign direct investment17.9%
#21Sharp underfunding of retirement due to pension fund devaluation17.6%

The pandemic has accelerated structural change in the global economic system, but this does not come without consequences. As central banks offer trillions of dollars worth in response packages and policies, this may inadvertently burden countries with even more debt.

Another concern is that COVID-19 is now hitting developing economies hard, critically stalling the progress they’ve been making on the world stage. For this reason, 38% of the survey respondents anticipate this may cause these markets to collapse.

Social Anxieties

High on everyone’s mind is also the possibility of another COVID-19 outbreak, despite global efforts to flatten the curve of infections.

RankSocietal Risk%
#10Another global outbreak of COVID-19 or different infectious disease30.8%
#13Governmental retention of emergency powers and/or erosion of civil liberties23.3%
#14Exacerbation of mental health issues21.9%
#15Fresh surge in inequality and social divisions21.3%
#18Anger with political leaders and distrust of government18.4%
#23Weakened capacity or collapse of national social security systems16.4%
#24Healthcare becomes prohibitively expensive or ineffective14.7%
#26Failure of education and training systems to adapt to a protracted crisis12.1%
#30Spike in anti-business sentiment3.2%

With many countries moving to reopen, a few more intertwined risks come into play. 21.3% of analysts believe social inequality will be worsened, while 16.4% predict that national social safety nets could be under pressure.

Geopolitical Troubles

Further restrictions on trade and travel movements are an alarm bell for 48.7% of risk analysts—these relationships were already fraught to begin with.

RankGeopolitical Risk%
#5Tighter restrictions on the cross-border movement of people and goods48.7%
#12Exploitation of COVID-19 crisis for geopolitical advantage24.2%
#17Humanitarian crises exacerbated by reduction in foreign aid19.6%
#22Nationalization of strategic industries in certain countries17.0%
#27Failure to support and invest in multilateral organizations for global crisis response7.8%
#31Exacerbation of long-standing military conflicts2.3%

In fact, global trade could drop sharply by 13-32% while foreign direct investment (FDI) is projected to decline by an additional 30-40% in 2020.

The drop in foreign aid could also put even more stress on existing humanitarian issues, such as food insecurity in conflict-ridden parts of the world.

Technology Overload

Technology has enabled a significant number of people to cope with the impact and spread of COVID-19. An increased dependence on digital tools has enabled wide-scale remote working for business—but for many more without this option, this accelerated adoption has hindered rather than helped.

RankTechnological Risk%
#9Cyberattacks and data fraud due to sustained shift in working patterns37.8%
#11Additional unemployment from accelerated workforce automation24.8%
#25Abrupt adoption and regulation of technologies (e.g. e-voting, telemedicine, surveillance)13.8%
#28Breakdown of IT infrastructure and networks6.9%

Over a third of the surveyed risk analysts see the emergence of cyberattacks due to remote working as a rising concern. Another near 25% see the threat of rapid automation as a drawback, especially for those in occupations that do not allow for remote work.

Environmental Setbacks

Last but certainly not least, COVID-19 is also potentially halting progress on climate action. While there were initial drops in pollution and emissions due to lockdown, some estimate there could be a severe bounce-back effect on the environment as economies reboot.

RankEnvironmental Risk%
#19Higher risk of failing to invest enough in climate resilience and adaptation18.2%
#29Sharp erosion of global decarbonization efforts4.6%

As a result of the more immediate concerns, sustainability may take a back seat. But with environmental issues considered the biggest global risk this year, these delayed investments and missed climate targets could put the Earth further behind on action.

Which Risks Are of the Greatest Concern?

The risk analysts were also asked which of these risks they considered to be of the greatest concern for the world. The responses to this metric varied, with societal and geopolitical factors taking on more importance.

VC_What's-at-Risk-v5-supp

In particular, concerns around another disease outbreak weighed highly at 40.1%, and tighter cross-border movement came in at 34%.

On the bright side, many experts are also looking to this recovery trajectory as an opportunity for a “great reset” of our global systems.

This is a virus that doesn’t respect borders: it crosses borders. And as long as it is in full strength in any part of the world, it’s affecting everybody else. So it requires global cooperation to deal with it.

——Gita Gopinath, IMF Chief Economist

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The COVID-19 Impact on Advertising Spend

Global advertising spending is estimated to see $50 billion decline across various mediums and industries as a result of COVID-19.

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covid-19 advertising spend

The COVID-19 Impact on Advertising Spend

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, global advertising investment was estimated to grow at a 7.1% clip in 2020.

Now, it is estimated to see a brutal contraction of 8.1%—equating to almost $50 billion—as a result of changing consumer behavior. The total loss becomes a bleak $96.4 billion when taking pre-pandemic growth forecasts into account.

Today’s graphic uses data from the World Advertising Research Center (WARC) to visualize the estimated decline in advertising spend by media format and industry.

As advertisers adapt to rising in-home media consumption, the tug-of-war for ad dollars between online and traditional media seems to have a decisive winner.

The Death of Traditional Media

After decades of experts predicting the death of traditional media formats, the COVID-19 pandemic could be the last nail in the coffin.

In fact, spend across every type of traditional media format will see a decline in 2020, while most online media formats are expected to see an increase in spending.

Mid-term, this era will be associated with an accelerant of latent and incremental trends towards more digital consumption, commerce, and thus advertising”

—Dr. Daniel Knapp, Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe

With consumers spending significantly more time at home, brands are allocating more dollars to certain media formats to reflect that. However, when it comes to traditional in-home formats such as TV, consumers are opting for streaming services instead. In fact, they are streaming twice as much online video on services such as Netflix compared to last year.

Spending Estimates, by Category

Almost every industry will see reduced spending. The one category that will buck the trend is “Telecoms & Utilities”, which will experience a 4.3% increase in ad spend throughout the year.

Interestingly, stay-at-home restrictions have increased consumers’ reliance on these services for staying connected with loved ones and working from home.

Moreover, the pandemic has proved to be a turning point for the telecommunications industry, as the importance of faster internet speeds are emphasized and the potential of 5G is realized.

The Road to Recovery?

When inflation and exchange rates are taken into account, the decline in advertising spend is expected to be worse than that experienced during the global financial crisis.

Although 2021 shows signs of recovery, WARC suggests this is reflective of how steep the decline in 2020 will be.

covid-19 advertising spend

Data shows that global advertising spending growth did not fully recover for eight years following the previous recession, so a swift recovery may be highly unlikely, and returning to pre-pandemic growth rates may not be possible for a number of years.

The Changing Advertising Landscape

As advertisers come to terms with their new reality, they are faced with the uncertainty of changing consumer behavior and the potential for a second wave of the pandemic, tightening quarantine restrictions once more.

Could COVID-19 be accelerating the inevitable shift to digital, or is the pain for traditional media only temporary?

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