Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Social Networks and Pandemics

I haven't written about the COVID-19 situation to date because I haven't felt that I have a great deal to contribute. Being able to understand the nature of exponential growth is not a very unique ability, and infectious disease is not something I'm greatly knowledgeable about. However, as people move into cancelling events and reducing their social networks in order to stop the spread of the disease, and talking about "flattening the curve", I wanted to write a little bit about how this kind of "social distancing" affects the spread.

Think about society as involving a set of social spheres. Each of these spheres is a group of people who see each other regularly. Each person belongs to multiple social spheres and they thus serve as the connection between these social spheres. You see the people you're around at work. You see your family. You see people at your church, your book discussion group, your play rehearsal, what have you. And within each of those spheres, there are other people who belong to a different set of spheres. I see people at work who spend time with their kids, whose kids spend time on a sports team, etc. Just like the game of "three degrees of Kevin Bacon" where you try to establish that every actor has been in a movie with someone who's been in a movie with Kevin Bacon, you're in close contact with all the people who are in close contact with someone you are in close contact with.

When our social spheres are large and we belong to lots of them, we're in second or third degree contact with lots of people. And if a disease is spreading through your area, you'll pretty quickly be in contact with someone who's been in contact with someone who's sick.

With large groups and many connections between groups, the virus spreads quickly through all the social spheres.

The goal with all this effort around "social distancing, as well as reminding people to wash their hands frequently, not touch their faces, etc. is two fold. On the one hand, good sanitary procedures and less physical contact result in less person to person transmission. On the other, having people break into smaller social spheres and belong to fewer social spheres (plus encouraging people to self-isolate if they or someone they know becomes sick) slows the spread of the disease as well, meaning that there are more steps between any given person and someone with the disease. However, just slowing the spread through having to take more steps would not actually solve our problem. Although the talk about "flattening the curve" makes sense and supports doing the right things, we do not actually have remotely enough intensive care unit beds to deal with everyone being exposed to COVID-19 more slowly -- unless by slowly we mean over the course of a dozen years.

So the point of social distancing is not just to slow the spread, it's to break up the connections between social networks sufficiently that whole networks simply don't get exposed to the virus. Isolating the disease and no having it spread through the whole population is key.

This means that the key to successfully limited the spread of the disease is not necessarily to see no one, but to break into fairly discrete social nodes that do not have as many connections with each other. As with the characters in Boccaccio's Decameron, in which seven young women and three young men retreat to a villa outside of Florence to wait out the Black Death, it's okay to be around a consistent set of people on a daily basis. The key thing is not to have many connections between your consistent social group and other consistent social groups. That way, if someone in one group gets sick, it won't spread beyond that group. If connections between groups are infrequent, it's less likely that what occasional interactions there are will fall during that dangerous period when someone has the virus and can spread it but is not yet showing symptoms.

So find your plague buddy, and like Boccaccio's merry crew, settle in to tell each other stories and otherwise pass the time. Flatten the curve, but also break the network. We want to keep as many social notes COVID-19 free as possible.


Jenny said...

"Being able to understand the nature of exponential growth is not a very unique ability"

Au contraire. My FB feed is full of posts essentially arguing, "That's a big number so it can't possibly be true."

mandamum said...

I agree with Jenny - exponential growth is so counter-intuitive that you have to have a strong faith in the intrinsic *right*ness of Math to believe it. See the book about being paid in grains of rice.... And we just had that lovely example of how bad people's math intuition is, so....

Agnes said...

This is a very useful line of thought. The implication, however, is that it is going to change our social life significantly, and maybe not only in a transient way. For this method to work, we have to maintain this social isolation -for how long? If we are lucky, there will be an effective medication or vaccine developed and distributed in the near future. Failing this, the other defense developing long term is the immunity of the people who recovered from the disease (if there are less susceptible people, the reuniting of those severed network links won't cause a new spike of case number) - but when is this going to happen? We have to take steps to maintain the sense of belonging with those groups we severe our physical) links with, if we don't want to lose that segment of our social life.