Amid the pandemic, there is increasing pressure on governments to ease lockdown restrictions, especially to lift economic and psychological burdens on people who have been confined to their homes worldwide. Many countries have started gradually lifting restrictions even as the number of cases of the infection continues to rise. As a Covid-19 vaccine is still months away, questions about the methods that can be adopted to avoid the second wave of infections while easing restrictions have arisen.
A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests that one of the ways of effective social distancing strategies to keep the Covid-19 curve flat include the idea of social bubbles. “…simple behavioural rules can go a long way in keeping the curve flat,” the study says.
What are social bubbles?
Last month, UK’s roadmap for exiting the lockdown stated that people could expand their household groups to include one other household in the same exclusive group, in order to allow those who are isolated some more social contact, “and to reduce the most harmful effects of the current social restrictions, while continuing to limit the risk of chains of transmission.” This method would also allow some families to return to work by sharing childcare responsibilities.
The idea is based on New Zealand’s model of household “bubbles”, an exclusive social group that is allowed to meet with each other amid the pandemic. The country followed this approach during the lockdown and allowed the expansion of the bubbles as transmission slowed and restrictions eased.
Essentially, as per New Zealand’s model, a bubble is referred to as an individual’s household or the people that one lives with. Under Alert level 3, people are allowed to extend their bubbles slightly to include caregivers or children who might be in shared care. It also applies to people who are living alone or a couple who wants the company of another one or two people. “These people don’t need to live in the same household but must be local. Always keep your bubble exclusive and keep it small,” the government’s advisory says. In case a member of the bubble develops symptoms, the entire bubble quarantines itself, preventing further spread of the infection.
Research published by the London School of Economics and Political Science says that the concept of social bubbles proved effective for New Zealand since it allowed people who were isolated, vulnerable or struggling to receive the care and support they needed. Further, such a policy can be an effective policy for other countries to encourage compliance with social distancing regulations while meeting care and support needs.
What does the study say?
The study introduces three strategies, which include contact with similar people, strengthening contact in communities and repeatedly interacting with the same people in bubbles. The study says that these strategies rely less on confinement and allow strategic social contact while still flattening the curve.
With regards to social bubbles, the study says that to create them individuals must decide with whom they want to regularly interact and overtime, they should restrict interactions to just these people. “This reduces the number of contact partners rather than the number of interactions. This strategy of limiting contact to very few others with repeated interactions is in the spirit of a social contract with others, to create social bubbles, allowing only interactions within the same group delineated by common agreement,” the study says.
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Social bubbles can also be applied by employers to create departmental or work unit bubbles of employees. For instance, for hospitals and essential workers, the risk of transmission can be minimised by introducing shifts with a similar composition of employees. This could mean clubbing together employees based on their residential proximity.
The authors of the study maintain that these “micro-communities” are difficult for a virus to penetrate and if in case the infection is contracted by one contact, it would be difficult for the virus to spread much further.
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