Good News! YOU Are Part of One of Humanity’s Greatest Achievements

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I’ve been in quarantine for three entire months. It hasn’t always been easy but the good news is that if everyone else has been quarantining too, we should have flattened the curve and now it’s finally safe to open up. Let’s just take a look at COVID cases in the Bay Area….ah. Fuck. Well I guess we should pump the brakes on reopening the state…oh. Well. Well then I suppose we’ll just have to ramp up testing. Shit. We’re about 26,000 tests per day short. So I guess I’ll just…keep staying inside. Fun. This is fun and not at all frustrating. I love it.

It’s easy to get that existential dread creeping in. Like, what have I been doing all this time? I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s since February. I ran out of Everything Bagel Seasoning in April. I haven’t gone surfing because my surf spot is in a county with tough travel restrictions and I want to respect that. I carry a mask on runs in case people get too close. What was the point? And what’s the point of continuing to do that while Elon Musk is running his Tesla factory like nothing is wrong, and Karens and Kyles are sneaking into salons to get haircuts, and and and and…

But here’s the thing: we can’t let that shit get us down. So to remind us all of why we are doing this, let’s talk about a little good news: a new study just published in Nature found that despite the continued plateau of COVID-19 cases in the US, our relatively minimal efforts have had massive positive repercussions. Like, you think this is the worst timeline but it’s not. Yes, I know there’s a timeline where our president was literally anyone other than Donald Trump and we were prepared with adequate PPE and testing and mask usage and also in that timeline Kurt Russell and John Carpenter made a third “Escape” movie where Snake Plissken fucks off to the moon but there’s also a timeline that’s worse than this one, where no states enacted any social distancing measures. Where all the bars and restaurants and gyms stayed open, and the US saw nearly 5 million more confirmed cases than we saw in this timeline, which due to lack of testing would mean about 60 million more infections. And when you take into account the much more successful measures taken by China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, and France, the six countries in total avoided 500 million additional infections.

These numbers come from researchers at UC Berkeley, led by the director of the school’s Global Policy Laboratory, who examined how quickly coronavirus spread in several different countries before any disease control measures were put into place. They found that the number of cases grew by about 38% each day, which doubled cases about every two days with no policies in place. Then they dug into the national and sub-national policies that were implemented (so taking into account different cities and states enacting different measures to stop the spread of the disease — 1,717 “non-pharmaceutical interventions”). They found that it took about 3 weeks for the results of each action to become clear, and that some policies were more effective than others at controlling spread. The best policies were “large-scale social distancing measures” like safer at home and shutting down businesses. Travel restrictions were so-so — in some cases they were very effective, like in Iran and France, but they didn’t so much elsewhere. Interestingly, school closures didn’t seem to have much of a benefit at all, though they pointed out that they need to do more research on that particular issue to figure out if that’s true.

That’s hugely helpful information to have, which is why they’ve released their data to the general public. Countries that are just now starting to see infections take off, like Brazil and Mexico, can use that data to enact smarter policies. And countries like the US, that are still in the midst of a first spike, might be able to use it to continue to cut down on cases, even if we continue to reopen in some places.

It’s worth noting that this study only looked at how many infections we could have expected without intervention, and not how many deaths. You may think that if it’s a direct relationship between infections and deaths, then we actually had 367,000 confirmed cases as of April 6 (the date that this study ended) and 14,000 deaths; compare that to 7 million confirmed cases instead, which is 19 times more, which would mean 266,000 deaths, an increase of 252,000. That’s, like, an extra 84 9/11s. I personally find it apt to measure deaths due to government incompetence in terms of how many 9/11s it is.

But it’s not a direct relationship, and figuring out how many deaths would actually have occurred would rely on many more factors, like hospitals being overwhelmed. The potential increased number of deaths would be incalculable for this particular study. But if you want a general idea, another study has also just been published in Nature that found that 11 countries in Europe prevented more than 3 million deaths by locking down. That’s a kila-9/11!

When discussing the number of deaths we avoided by sheltering in place and closing down the economy, lead author Soloman Hsiang said something that I find incredibly inspiring, and I’m going to think about this whenever I’m feeling like quarantine is pointless:

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements. I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

Think about that! No human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. You did that! You did that by staying home, by wearing a mask, by washing your hands, by thinking of your fellow humans. Good job, you! Five to 60 million people in the US alone are healthy because of you. Or at least, they don’t have coronavirus. Isn’t that amazing that you did that?

So please keep that in mind the next time you’re sad because you miss your friends, or upset because your roots are growing out, or annoyed because you’re the Rage Against the Machine/Run the Jewels tour was canceled. You really are a hero. Keep it up!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Nice! As somebody said, this has all brought out the fact that good, kind, unselfish people remain so, while nasty mean vindictive assholes remain the same as always.

    Two points.
    If Iran is one of the places that had a better response. that’s a pretty low bar to jump – the only country to have an actual full blown second wave going!

    Second, the school closure thing was known right at the start out of Wuhan. Kids don’t get it easily and if they do it’s from family not school. I think only one known case of kid to kid transmission in Australia (7400 cases). All the parents understandably freak over Kawasaki Disease but the chances of that are literally similar to dying in a plane crash.

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