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Humanity in times of COVID-19: How to help each other properly

Ben F. Maier
Mar 15 · 4 min read

First, to have this out of the way, I’m a scientist who researches how infectious diseases spread and I’m currently working on COVID-19, as well. If you don’t believe me, you can check my credentials on my website http://benmaier.org or read this article in the Washington Post: https://wapo.st/39UhTsG. In the following, I will exclusively express my own views based on my research. These views are not necessarily the same as my employer’s.

I’ve noticed in various social media channels that many of you want to mobilize and help people who suffer from containment measures and/or are part of a risk group. I think this is an exceptional display of humanity on your end. Yet, I feel that it’s not always entirely clear how to help, especially in such times where many things change quickly. In the following, I will explain a few things regarding the disease’s spread and recommend some measures concerning help that can be summarized as:

1. Act locally, e.g. by helping neighbors.

2. Help few people, but do it consistently. For instance, if you would like to babysit, look for one family and help them exclusively.

3. Do not meet up with other people, except those you want to support.

Okay, now a bit more comprehensively.

When one is confronted with a situation like the current one, it’s clear that you may feel help- and powerless, a feeling that people can overcome by taking matters into their own hands. More often than not, this helps a great deal. In the specific case of an epidemic, however, it’s not the greatest idea to just go out and help everywhere you can. The reasoning behind this is that while doing the latter, you “mix” more than usual: you take other routes in public transport and meet many people you usually don’t see. This might potentially increase the number of contacts, which in turn increases the risk of infection for the general public.

One special circumstance about COVID-19 is that children and young human beings can be infected without displaying strong symptoms (sometimes even none), while being infectious nonetheless. Let’s assume you’re of an age between 20 and 35 and you want to help as many people as possible, for instance by babysitting or grocery shopping. The following might happen: You catch the virus from family A, then you spread it to both Family B and C, and finally, when going shopping for the elderly, you spread it within the supermarket or to said elderly who are very much at risk. All of this might happen without you knowing that you’re infectious.

Our team’s research (https://arxiv.org/abs/2002.07572) suggests that currently it’d be best if everyone who has the possible means would stay in isolation at home for as long as possible. This includes cancellation of all events and social activities: schools should close, nobody should meet up with friends, political activists should meet via video conferences. But I also see that many countries make this close to impossible: For example, how is a single parent supposed to look after their child when they still have to go to work?

That’s why I have the following suggestion: If you want to help and you feel healthy and you didn’t have contact with anyone who was sick with symptoms of e.g. coughing, look for a single household to help, and best make it a household in your local neighborhood. First, this leads to you not moving much within the city, which reduces mixing (bullet point 1 above). Second, you effectively become part of a single household, the one you’re helping. In China, we saw that after the implementation of containment measures, most infections occurred within households. In case the household you’re helping becomes infectious, the probability that you become infected increases, too. But if you don’t see anybody other than these people, you become the end of an infection chain, which at the moment helps the most. This concerns bullet point 2. Lastly, it is really important that you don’t infect the people you’re helping. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by avoiding all social contact other than to those in the household you chose to help, i.e. don’t meet with friends in person and generally: stay at home. This is the reasoning behind bullet point 3.

I know that the current situation is not easy, but the most important thing you can currently do as an individual is to remove yourself from a possible transmission chain such that the chain doesn’t occur in the first place. This is how we can protect our health care systems and save lives.

Ben F. Maier

Written by

I’m a scientist researching how infectious diseases spread in human systems.

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