Oxford Study Suggests Strategic Distancing As Lockdown Gets Lifted

Strategic distancing could be the way forward as the lockdown eases in phases and could keep the number of COVID-19 infections stable.

In a study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Dr. Per Block, Professor Melinda Mills and a team from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, in collaboration with researchers from Zurich, have carried out extensive modeling on the impact of loosening the lockdown on the course of the virus. It shows that by practicing strategic distancing, the infection rate can be minimized as compared to simple social distancing in a post-lockdown world.

New ways of social distancing need to be innovated

According to the research study, strategically reducing contact is more favourable than complete isolation and, thus, can keep the curve flat in the long run.

Dr. Block, lead author of the article states, ‘We demonstrate that strategic reduction of contact can strongly increase the efficiency of social distancing measures, introducing the possibility of allowing some social contact while keeping risks low.

‘This approach provides nuanced insights to policy makers for effective social distancing which can mitigate negative consequences of social isolation.’

He adds: ‘We demonstrate how simple changes within individuals’ social networks, and network-informed constellations within businesses and schools, can alter the rate and spread of the virus.’

This is what we need to consider: 

The Oxford study looks at three strategic options:

  •       Increasing similarity of contacts (homophily), by temporarily restricting contact to those who share key similar features, such as living in the same neighbourhood, where possible.
  •       Reducing interaction with people who are not connected to one’s usual social contacts, in order to decrease ties that bridge social clusters.
  •       Repeatedly interacting with the same social contacts (repetition), by creating micro-communities, commonly referred to as social bubbles.

The strategies allow more social contact in an organized and planned manner. The study maintains, ‘All three of our strategies substantially slow the spread of the virus compared to either no intervention or simple, un-strategic social distancing.’ 

Social distancing vs. Social contact

Image Credit: Zameen

The most effective strategy would be the third one where contacts are limited and interactions are restricted to those few repeated contacts.

The maintenance of patterns in contacts such as interacting with the people who live in the same neighbourhood and reducing interaction with others, such as occasional acquaintances, was also found highly effective as compared to reducing contact at random.

According to the study, reducing high-impact contact rather than reducing or removing it overall, can mitigate adverse social, behavioural, and economic impacts of lockdown approaches while keeping risks low.

Bottomline of every safety measure and social distancing procedure

These strategies reduce the recognized psychological and physical harms of extended social distancing. Strategically reducing contact may be more acceptable to people than complete isolation and therefore lead to increased compliance.

The study further maintains, ‘Strategic contact reduction has a substantive effect on flattening the curve compared to simple social distancing consistently across all scenarios…Since most individuals in a post-lockdown world need to interact across multiple social circles (e.g., workplace, extended family), employing only one strategy might not be practical.’

The study suggests that even a combination of the strategies is preferable rather than adopting no strategies of reducing contact.

The research states, ‘We provide clear social network-based strategies to empower individuals and organisations to adopt safer contact patterns across multiple domains by enabling individuals to differentiate between ‘high-impact’ and ‘low-impact’ contacts.

 ‘Instead of blanket self-isolation policies, the emphasis on similar, community-based, and repetitive contacts is both easy to understand and implement thus making distancing measures more palatable over longer periods of time.’



Featured Image Courtesy: SB

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