Spring Break vs. COVID-19: Mapping the Real Impact of Ignoring Social Distancing

Yesterday, the United States surpassed China, becoming the world leader in COVID-19 infections. It's not hard to understand why. Social distancing remains very uneven. Domestic travel continues unchecked. Asymptomatic carriers stay on the move. Starting on the coasts, COVID-19 is now moving inexorably across the nation, coming to a city or town near you.

If you want to get a glimpse of how COVID-19 can spread, watch this clip from Tectonix GEO. It uses data from anonymized mobile devices to trace the movement of Spring Break partiers who congregated at one single Ft. Lauderdale beach, then moved back across the United States, in each case potentially bringing the virus with them. It's a quick case study showing how an infectious disease can spread through a country that wants to remain mobile come hell, pandemic, or high water.

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What Happened to U.S. Cities That Practiced–and Didn’t Practice–Social Distancing During 1918’s “Spanish Flu”

Americans have long been accused of growing socially distant, bowling alone, as Robert Putnam wrote in 2000, or worse becoming radicalized as "lone wolves" and isolated trolls. But we are seeing how much we depend on each other as social distancing becomes the painful normal. Not quite quarantine, social distancing involves a semi-voluntary restriction of our movements. For many people, this is, as they say, a big ask. But no matter what certain world leaders tell us, if at all possible, we should stay home, and stay a safe distance away from people who don’t live with us.

People in the U.S. have done this before, of course, just a little over a hundred years ago during the influenza epidemic called the “Spanish Flu,” though the buzzy term "social distancing" wasn’t used then. As the short VOA News video above explains, during the spread of the disease, city officials in St. Louis did what cities all over the country are doing now: shut down schools, playgrounds, libraries, churches, public offices, and parks and banned gatherings of over 20 people. Philadelphia, on the other hand, refused to do the same. The city “allowed a major World War I support parade to take place that attracted 20,000 people.”




The refusal to shut down large gatherings cost thousands of lives. “Three days later, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled with sick and dying Spanish flu patients.” COVID-19 may be a far milder illness in children and most healthy people, but this is exactly what makes it so insidious. One person can infect dozens before showing any symptoms, if ever. During the “Spanish” flu pandemic, “the best approaches were layered,” writes German Lopez at Vox. “It wasn’t enough to just tell people to stay home, because they might feel the need to go to school or work, or they could just ignore guidance and go to events, bars, church or other big gatherings anyway.”

The comparison between St. Louis and Philadelphia stresses the need for city officials to intervene in order for social distancing strategies to work. However we might feel in ordinary circumstances about governments banning public gatherings, the global spread of a deadly virus seems to warrant a coordinated public response that best contains the spread. “In practical terms,” Lopez points out, “this meant advising against or prohibiting just about every aspect of public life, from schools to restaurants to entertainment venues (with some exceptions for grocery stores and drugstores).”

Lopez cites several academic studies of the 1918 influenza outbreak as evidence of the effectiveness of social distancing. For even more data on our current pandemic, see Tomas Pueyo’s extensive Medium essay compiling data and statistics on COVID-19’s spread and prevention. And if you’re still having a little trouble figuring out what exactly “social distancing” involves, see this excellent guide from Asaf Bitton, physician, public health researcher, and director of the Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

As Bitton tells Isaac Chotiner in a recent New Yorker interview, “social distancing isn’t some external concept that applies only to work and school. Social distancing is really extreme. It is a concept that disconnects us physically from each other. It profoundly reorients our daily life habits. And it is very hard.” No matter how polarized we become, or how glued to our various screens, we are “social creatures” who need connection and community. When we make the transition out of life at a distance, maybe the memory of that need will help us overcome some of our pre-virus social alienation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch “Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know,” and the 24-Lecture Course “An Introduction to Infectious Diseases,” Both Free from The Great Courses

COVID-19 is a serious, highly communicable disease. It is not a hoax, and it will continue to spread until it is contained with widespread testing and a vaccine. At present, scientists seem to know little about all the forms of transmission or the possibility of reinfection. Older people and the immunocompromised are certainly more at risk than others, but the virus can kill the healthy and the sick. It doesn’t care where it starts or ends. It doesn’t care if someone is a U.S. Senator or someone a senator deems disposable. These plain facts should put us all on notice, but the response has not only been slow but nearly nonexistent in countries where leaders are daily making the situation worse.

In the U.S., hospitals and city and state governments cannot expect the kind of response from the federal government needed to meet the threat. We must all educate ourselves and do our part, both for ourselves and our neighbors—which seems, after all, to amount to the same thing.




To that end, we can thank The Great Courses company for offering their entire online lecture series, An Introduction to Infectious Diseases, for free, as well as the short video at the top from Dr. Roy Benaroch, who debunks rumors and explains the history and inevitability of COVID-19. “It’s no longer a question of if this virus is going to strike your community, but when.”

While most cases are mild, this should not lure us into a false sense of security. Infected people who appear healthy and present no symptoms are responsible for the spread of the disease, and if they continue to move around and infect others, the chances of it striking us or those we love increase exponentially. This is why social distancing is so important. “We’re past the time when containment can separate us from them, the contagious people from the rest of us.” Every time we go out, we risk exposing others or ourselves.

“Of course, you should seek medical attention if you experience shortness of breath or more severe symptoms,” but people with milder symptoms should stay away from doctors and hospitals. Dr. Benaroch gives us several other preventative measures we can employ to slow the spread and “flatten the curve.” COVID-19 is a viral infection, and as such, it makes sense for us to brush up on our virology via the third lecture in the Infectious Diseases course, above, “Viruses: Hijackers of Your Body’s Cells.” Catch the full 24-video course from Dr. Barry Fox here, and watch lecture six, “Six Decades of Infectious Disease Challenges,” below. Great Courses promises more “relevant content to help inform, enlighten, and understand the world around us and to counter mistruths and rumors.” We'll keep you posted.

Stay home, share the video at the top with your skeptical friends and family, and urge them to stay home too.

“An Introduction to Infectious Diseases” will be added to our list, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Note: You can sign up for a free trial of Great Courses Plus and watch lectures for countless courses over the next 30 days.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How a Virus Spreads, and How to Avoid It: A Former NASA Engineer Demonstrates with a Blacklight in a Classroom

The past few weeks have reminded us just why viruses have been such a formidable enemy of humanity for so long. Though very few of the countless viruses in existence affect us in any way, let alone a lethal one, we can't see them without microscopes. And so when a deadly virus breaks out, we live our daily lives with an invisible killer in our midst. Aggressive testing, as several coronavirus-afflicted countries have proven, does much to lower the rate of transmission. But how, exactly, does transmission happen? In the video above, Youtuber Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer and Apple product designer, demonstrates the process vividly by taking a blacklight into that most diseased of all environments: the elementary-school classroom.

You can't see viruses under a blacklight, but you can see the special powder that Rober applies to the hands of the class's teacher. At the beginning of the school day, the teacher shakes the hand of just three kids, touching none of the others, and by lunchtime — a couple of hours after Rober powders the hands of one more student during morning break — the blacklight reveals the "germs" everywhere.




This despite fairly diligent hand-washing, albeit hand-washing unaccompanied by the disinfection of surfaces, cellphones, and other objects in and parts of the classroom. "Even if a virus is spread through airborne transmission," Rober says, "those tiny droplets don't stay in the air for long. Then they land on surfaces, waiting to be touched by our hands." This leads him to the declaration that "the ultimate defense against catching a virus is: just don't touch your face."

Rober calls your eyes, nose, and mouth "the single weak spot on the Death Star when it comes to viruses. That's the only way they can get in to infect you." Hence, here in the time of COVID-19, the frequent urgings not just to wash our hands but to refrain from touching our faces as well. Increasingly many of us have become hyper-aware of our own "germ hygiene," as Rober calls it, but the other half of the battle against the pandemic must be institutional: school closures, for example, one of which was announced over the PA system during this very video's shoot. "Because of this virus, we are going to be closing school for three weeks," says the principal, not without a note of excitement in his voice — but an excitement hardly comparable to the subsequent explosion of joy among the third-graders listening. Challenging though this time may be, children like these remind us to take our fun wherever we find it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Fighting the Coronavirus Depends on You

A public service announcement from Vox.

It's worth coupling this with our previous post: Quarantined Italians Send a Message to Themselves 10 Days Ago: What They Wish They Knew Then.

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Italians’ Nightly Singalongs Prove That Music Soothes the Savage Beast of Coronavirus Quarantine & Self-Isolation

It’s not like we’re maestros…it’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety. —Emma Santachiara, Rome

As reported by The New York Times, Ms. Sanachiara, age 73, has joined the vast choir of ordinary Italians taking to their balconies and windows to participate in socially distant neighborhood singalongs as coronavirus rages through their country.

The Internet has been exploding with messages of support and admiration for the quarantined citizens’ musical displays, which have a festive New Year’s Eve feel, especially when they accompany themselves on pot lids.




Three days ago, Rome’s first female mayor, Virginia Raggi, called upon residents to fling open their windows or appear on their balconies for nightly 6pm community sings.

A woman in Turin reported that the pop up musicales have forged friendly bonds between neighbors who in pre-quarantine days, never acknowledged each other’s existence.

Naturally, there are some soloists.

Tenor Maurizio Marchini serenaded Florentines to "Nessun Dorma," the famous aria from Puccini's opera Turandot, repeating the high B along with a final Vincerò!, which earns him a clap from his young son.

In Rome, Giuliano Sangiorgi, frontman for Negramaro, hit his balcony, guitar in hand, to entertain neighbors with Pino Daniele’s 1980 hit "Quanno Chiove" and his own band’s "Meraviglioso."

Earlier in the year, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, China, the deadly epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, also used music to boost morale, singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs from their individual residences. Jiāyóu, or “add oil,” was a frequent exhortation, reminding those in isolation to stay strong and keep going.

Readers, are you singing with your neighbors from a safe distance? Are they serenading you? Let us know in the comments.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like most of us in this crazy, historic period, all of her events have been cancelled. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Quarantined Italians Send a Message to Themselves 10 Days Ago: What They Wish They Knew Then

Countries like the US, England, France, Spain and Germany are about 9-10 days behind in the COVID-19 progression. For our benefit, the video channel called "A THING BY" asked Italians to record a message they wish had heard 10 days prior. Let's take careful note of what they have to say.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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