Social Distancing Could Continue Into 2022, According To New Harvard Study

But what exactly will that look like in SA?


Yamkela Mdaka |

Social distancing has become the new normal, and it might just be around for a bit longer than we thought it would be. At this point, if there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that the world as we know it is changing and will probably never be the same again. This is not necessarily bad news; it just means that there are a lot more new normals we’re going to have to adjust to now and going forward.

One of the biggest changes will be in the way that we interact with each other post-pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine a world with certain seasons where we can’t shake hands, share hugs, or even offer up a high five to someone who’s just told a really good joke. But that just might be our reality for longer than we think – at least up until 2022.

The study

This is according to a recent study by researchers from Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. The study, published in the journal Science, says that it’s highly likely that there may be on and off periods of social distancing into 2022 (in the absence of a vaccine).

For the study, researchers ran simulations that modelled several ways that the pandemic could play out. With several different outcomes from the simulated scenarios, the one they believed to be the most likely was a scenario where the virus reoccurs intermittently as seasons come and go – almost in the same way the influenza virus does.

“We found that one-time social distancing measures are likely to be insufficient to maintain the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 within the limits of critical care capacity,” Stephen Kissler, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

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“What seems to be necessary in the absence of others of treatments [sic] are intermittent social distancing periods.”

This would offer hospitals, in the absence of treatments and a vaccine, time to increase their critical care capacity to mitigate the surge in cases that could take place when the measures we currently have now are completely lifted.

The authors did, however, admit that a key limitation in their study is that they currently do not know how strong a previously infected person’s immunity against the virus will be and how long it lasts – something that could have a huge impact on how the virus plays out.

Even if the virus is ‘eliminated’, the study encourages surveillance of the virus to continue as a resurgence of the virus may be possible as far forward as 2024.

“We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effected and/or isn’t sustained for long enough,” the study says.

What’s happening in SA?

As of 24 April 2020, South Africa has conducted over 143 570 tests, identified 3 953 positive cases, had 1 473 recoveries and has seen 75 deaths. In his most recent national address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a phased lifting of the national lockdown from 30 April 2020.

“There is still much unknown about the manner and the spread of the virus among the population,” he said.

He went on to explain that the government will be implementing a risk-adjusted strategy consisting of five alert levels. The country is currently in level 5, a level that calls for drastic measures, and will move to level 4 on 1 May 2020.

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“This means that some activity will be allowed subject to extreme precautions,” the president said. “Some businesses will be allowed to resume operations subject to strict conditions.”

The other levels call for the following:

Level 3: Eased restrictions on several workplace and social activities.

Level 2: Further easing of restrictions on leisure and social activities, while still maintaining social distancing.

Level 1: Most normal activity can continue with strict adherence to health guidelines.

“The National Coronavirus Command Council will determine the alert level based on an assessment of the infection rate and the capacity of our health system to provide care to those who need it,” Ramaphosa said.

“We have undertaken a detailed exercise to classify the different parts of the economy according to the risk of transmission in that sector, the expected impact on of the lockdown, the economic contribution of the sector and the effect on livelihoods.”

READ MORE ON: Coronavirus Health Health Advice

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