An Australian systems and data expert has highlighted the significant difference that can be made to stopping the spread of coronavirus if everyone complies with social distancing and home isolation measures.
New data from the University of Sydney's engineering faculty suggests in order to control the spread of COVID-19, at least 80 per cent of Australians must comply with social distancing measures.
But when talking about social distancing in this context, it’s not about standing 1.5 metres away from someone else, Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, Director of the university’s Complex Systems Research Group, says it means staying at home as much as possible.
The new numbers published on Wednesday suggest if 80 per cent of Australians comply and stay at home as much as possible the spread of COVID-19 will be under control in four months.
If 90 per cent comply with social distancing, we could experience normality in just three months.
However, if it is only 70 per cent of the population complying, with 30 per cent choosing not to, there is no chance of controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
A graph included in the research shows how rapidly rates of infection could rise if only 70 per cent of the population stay home.
“There is a clear trade-off – stricter measures imposed earlier would reduce how long our lives are impacted by this disease,” Professor Prokopenko said
“On the contrary, laxer protocols could mean a longer, more drawn out and ineffective struggle against COVID-19.”
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Professor Prokopenko said it is important Australians reduce their interactions, outside of their household, by 80 per cent, even to going to shopping centres, pharmacies and post offices.
If Australia wants to see life return to what it was in three months, which is the projected best-case scenario projected by Professor Prokopenko and his team, everyone needs to aim to cut out coming into contact with people by 90 per cent.
He explains getting the entire population of Australia to comply 100 per cent is not plausible because people need to buy food and run errands, and of course people do still need to work and some cannot do so from home.
Containing the disease
Right now, Australia cannot contain the disease.
“After this three months, if the suppression is lifted there is a high chance of a resurgence of the disease,” Professor Prokopenko says.
“Many people are asking ‘why, what is the point of sitting at home for three or four months?’”
He explains Australia was unable to contain the disease before it began to “sustain itself in the community”.
“We can only hope to control it, to bring it down to a low number - with maybe sporadic numbers here and there, single digits and double digits - because at that time you could go and catch all those cases, trace them and treat them and maybe prevent any further spread.”
He warns of a resurgence when the restraints, like border closures and restrictions on gatherings, are relaxed.
Eventually Australia will have to open its borders and it’s not likely every other country will eradicate COVID-19, so cases could be reintroduced when people start coming in.
However, this is why it is important to implement the strict social distancing measures for three months.
“We are simply buying ourselves time,” Professor Prokopenko says.
“In essence, it’s a race against time, so the further we delay it in the future the more chances we get to build up healthcare.”
Around the world images of countries with decent healthcare systems show people sleeping on hospital floors because there aren’t enough beds.
Even Australia’s healthcare system may not be able to keep up with the demand at this rate.
Professor Prokopenko says we need to switch our behaviour to allow for a response which will give Australia a fighting chance.
‘We’re not barbarians who abandon our old’
There are some people more at risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering from severe illness and dying, including the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
But young, healthy people must do their part, even if they are under the impression they are immune, which they are not.
“I know what the perception is,” Professor Prokopenko says.
“You adults look at it and say ‘why do we need to suffer for three or four months with no gain?’”
It’s a question of ethics Professor Prokopenko says, pointing out we live in a “civilised society” where we should look after the vulnerable people who are likely to die from the coronavirus.
“We are asking people, including young adults and middle-aged people to submit sacrifices to buy us time until the situation is more under control,” he says.
“We’re not barbarians who abandon our old.”
Professor Prokopenko says now Australia still has a chance to slow the trajectory of the disease.
“We still have the chance to make the choice, so we can control the disease by making changes to our lives, rather than the disease controlling us.”
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