BEN Ayade, Governor of Cross River State and also a professor of Microbiology stirred controversy recently when he said the practice of social distancing might be ineffective to control the spread of coronavirus.
“Social distancing presupposes that things are so equal, that you stay in an isolated room, it is completely wrong because in natural circumstances, in our own cultural habit people are used to interacting, we are not electric poles, we are not trees, we are interacting by nature,” Ayade said in a video that went viral on the social media.
“Social distancing gives a false impression of security because I know that if you and I stand together and I sneeze, that two metres distance, the factors that govern the transmissivity are things that are beyond your own control. Variables like humidity, wind speed, wind direction, how do you control those factors?” he questioned.
He said science has backed the use of nose masks as an option; that social distancing is not as effective as some people have argued.
Consequently, the governor whose state is yet to record any case of Covid-19, directed all civil servants from grade level 10 and above in the state should wear a face mask and resume work on Tuesday, April 14.
The governor’s position has generated controversy, but not many of his critics have invalidated his position with evidence. But is the governor right in his estimation?
Social distancing according to WHO
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reeled out some public health guidelines for public safety. In an article titled, “Basic protective measures against the new coronavirus,” the world health body listed frequent washing of hands and maintaining social distancing among others as preventive measures.
According to the WHO, everyone who has not contracted the virus should maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
The guideline explains that when someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus.
If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the Covid-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease, it said.
What Centre for Disease Control says about social distancing
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDD) says social distancing which is also called “physical distancing,” means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home.
To practice social or physical distancing, the Centre says someone must stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people, and people should not gather in groups as well as stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.
It emphasised that in addition to everyday steps to prevent COVID-19, “keeping space between you and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slowing its spread locally and across the country and world.”
“When COVID-19 is spreading in your area, everyone should limit close contact with individuals outside your household in indoor and outdoor spaces,”CDD advises.
“Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay away from others when possible, even if you have no symptoms. Social distancing is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.”
Why practice social distancing?
The Centre explained that Covid-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period.
It said spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.
“The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs. Recent studies indicate that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19,” it explained.
The CDD added that it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes.
However, this is not the only way the virus spreads. Covid-19 can live for hours or days on a surface, depending on factors such as sunlight and humidity.
It emphasised that social distancing helps limit contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces.
Scientific basis for social-distancing interventions against COVID-19
Joseph A. Lewnard and Nathan C. Lo in an article published in Lancet Journals on March 23 gave both a scientific and ethical basis for social distancing against Covid-19. The Lancet is an independent, international general medical journal founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley.
Lewnard is is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of California who uses mathematical and statistical modeling to study infectious diseases, Nathan C Lo is a Resident physician and public health scientist, at the School of Medicine, University of California.
In the article, they both agreed that, by all scientifically meaningful criteria, the world is undergoing a Covid-19 pandemic.
Writing on the ways to prevent the spread of the virus which has no cure at the moment, they said: “In the absence of any pharmaceutical intervention, the only strategy against COVID-19 is to reduce mixing of susceptible and infectious people through early ascertainment of cases or reduction of contact.
Under the Lancet Infectious Diseases, Joel Koo and colleagues assessed the potential effect of such social distancing interventions on SARS-CoV-2 spread and COVID-19 burden in Singapore.
They concluded that the effectiveness and societal impact of quarantine and social distancing will depend on the credibility of public health authorities, political leaders, and institutions. It is important that policymakers maintain the public’s trust through the use of evidence-based interventions and fully transparent, fact-based communication.
In another article titled “The effect of control strategies to reduce social mixing on outcomes of the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan, China: a modelling study” published on March 25 in Lancent Journals, researchers concluded Restrictions on activities in Wuhan, if maintained until April, would probably help to delay the epidemic peak.
According to them, the research was aimed to estimate the effects of physical distancing measures on the progression of the Covid-19 epidemic, hoping to provide some insights for the rest of the world.
At the end of the exercise they summarised their findings: “Our projections show that physical distancing measures were most effective if the staggered return to work was at the beginning of April; this reduced the median number of infections by more than 92% (IQR 66–97) and 24% (13–90) in mid-2020 and end-2020, respectively.
“There are benefits to sustaining these measures until April in terms of delaying and reducing the height of the peak, median epidemic size at end-2020, and affording health-care systems more time to expand and respond. However, the modelled effects of physical distancing measures vary by the duration of infectiousness and the role school children have in the epidemic.”
While interpreting their findings, they said: “Restrictions on activities in Wuhan, if maintained until April, would probably help to delay the epidemic peak. Our projections suggest that premature and sudden lifting of interventions could lead to an earlier secondary peak, which could be flattened by relaxing the interventions gradually. However, there are limitations to our analysis, including large uncertainties around estimates of R0 and the duration of infectiousness.”
It is safe therefore to say that Ben Ayade, Governor of Cross River was not right about his dismissal of the social distancing as an effective measure against the spread of Covid-19. He has also not provided empirical evidence to support his claim.