Playing Six Degrees of Separation with SARS-CoV-2

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2020

This morning I got up and decided to think positive about our situation.  First, we have to consider the numbers. I like to use rules of thumb to make easy comparisons, so here’s a table based on a world population of 7 billion. (It’s really 7.7, but I’m making it easier on myself mathematically.)

Population Percent
7,000,000,000 100%
700,000,000 10%
70,000,000 1%
7,000,000 .1%
700,000 .01%
70,000 .001%
7,000 .0001%
700 .00001%
70 .000001%
7 .0000001%

I feel looking at the math should reduce our fears — at least for now. Using for my stats, worldwide there are 323,117 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 this morning. That’s about .005% of the population. 13,848 have died, or about .0002%. Now, I no longer trust my math skills, but I believe that’s 1 in 505,488 for dying, and 1 in 21,664 for being infected. Those numbers make me feel better.

Of course, that’s using the total population of the world. If you live in Italy or New York City, your chances are much greater at being infected or dying. The U.S. has roughly 327 million citizens, meaning if we only consider it, which has 27,684 infected people with 354 deaths as of 3/22/20, then there’s a 1 in 11,812 chance of being infected, and 1 in 923,728 of dying. Still not bad. However, the population of NYC is 8,623,000, and if all 12,683 infected cases from New York state were in the city, that’s only 1 chance in 680. Now, they are starting to get scary.

Depending on where you live, you might feel your odds are pretty good.

During the initial stages of a worldwide pandemic, your chances of being infected increases by how many people you know who travel. Remember the Six Degrees of Separation game? Right now, most people outside of Wuhan who have caught SARS-CoV-2 were just one or two degrees away from meeting someone who recently flew. At first, it was people who traveled from China, but now it’s more about people coming from Seattle or New York City, but eventually, it will be about the people who drive around your city.

I don’t know anyone who has the disease. It takes One Degree of Separation to catch Covid-19. I don’t know how close the plague is, it could be two, three, or even four degrees away. Things will get much more frightening when we know people who know infected people — two degrees away. So far, I don’t know any two-degree people or even heard of any three-degree people.

The reason why China has been able to contain the disease is that it tracked every connection. The U.S. has allowed the disease to get out of control, which means they can’t track the various degrees of separation. However, by getting everyone to shelter in place they could get the pandemic under control again and then start tracing the infections.

Some states and smaller cities might be able to track all the cases of infection and keep things under control. But that won’t work unless people stop moving around. The reason why the game Six Degrees of Separation actually works is humans love to travel. It’s why the pandemic spread so quickly.

I wonder what we will learn from this lesson. When a pandemic breaks out, we should stop all air travel immediately. That means travelers will get stuck in foreign cities for the duration. We won’t know how far we’re willing to go until this pandemic is over and see its total cost. Besides killing a lot of people, it will probably devastate the world economies. That might make us savvier about the next time.

It’s been about a century since the last terrible pandemic. It would be comforting to think another horrible pandemic won’t come around for another century. However, humans are increasingly doing things to up our chances of another pandemic. We could be more careful if we wanted. It’s a matter of science, education, and statistics.

I wonder if this pandemic will teach us the value of science. Too many people dismiss science because it reveals unpleasant statistics. I found this cartoon on Facebook that should remind everyone of the true value of science. It got only one like by my friends when I reposted it.




10 thoughts on “Playing Six Degrees of Separation with SARS-CoV-2”

  1. The issue with connections gets quite scary. One of the factors in it, as I understand it, is the way we live in social circles; the ‘degrees of separation’ reflect those links. Occasionally, somebody is a ‘connector’ and links to other social circles. I once plotted out the people I’m various degrees of separation from, living and dead. Turns out I am just three degrees from Winston Churchill. The connection came through my writing work and a particular book I wrote, which involved working with people who’d been at senior NZ army level in WW2. It’s intriguing how it works – which brings me back to the Covid-19 pandemic and the spread; it’s possible that connections exist in unlikely ways. Hopefully social distancing and early isolation will help buy time.

    1. I once had a teacher who said he shook hands with a man who shook hands with Mark Twain. That puts me three degrees away from meeting Mark Twain. I myself once met a lady who had been on the Titanic – one degree. And my history teacher had worked with Douglas MacArthur – two degrees. I once got to meet Al Gore and shake his hand, so I’m two degrees away from a lot of historical people. I’ve also got to meet a lot of famous science fiction writers, so I’m only one degree away from them, and two degrees away from all the writers they knew. Yes, it is fun to also play the Six Degrees of Separation game with history and time.

  2. The cases we have here in South Africa radiated from people who returned from Italy, not China.

    I’m very conflicted about this whole situation. Corinne (who shares my house) has a weekly knitting group, and I have a weekly coffee meeting with two to four burnt out old men (depending on who turns up). Should we give these up?

    And how do we feed ourselves? In my country, you can have food delivered, sure, but we don’t really do reliability and punctuality. So I still go to my favorite supermarket every third day (I used to go every day). But I don’t see all that much thinning of the shopping numbers. The queues are shorter, but I don’t see any attempt to stand further away from other people. And on every trip, I’m obviously going to get quite close to perhaps 50 other people, no matter how hard I try to give them a wide berth. There’s lots of toilet paper, by the way. Long life milk is a bit of a problem.

    At the last count, I see Tennessee has surged way ahead of South Africa in confirmed cases. I’m wondering, though, if that’s not just a case of your reporting and testing being so much better.

    1. It might be possible for South Africa to keep SARS-CoV-2 under control if they are relentless at testing and patient tracking. Is this possible? Do y’all have the resources?

      There is a chance of getting infected with shopping for food, but we can develop procedures to avoid that. More scary is for places that depend on importing food. It’s going to get harder to produce and distribute food. I’m already seeing articles about Great Britain running out of food, and advocating agricultural independence.

      I expect the selection of food items to dwindle over the coming weeks even though stories will restock regularly, especially for imported foods, or products made by small suppliers.

  3. I think — What the experts aren’t telling us (but know) is that this pandemic is just getting started. What they’re doing by recommending social distancing and self-isolation is not an attempt to eradicate or even control the disease (at least not in the way we think of it.) “Flattening the curve” as they put it, is simply a means of buying time.

    Buying time so health care services aren’t overrun all at once. Buying time so those infected can recover, hopefully now with immunity. And buying time until a vaccine can be produced perhaps in a year or so? At this stage, I don’t believe even they think they can get control of this. Trying to get an entire country’s population to adhere to strict rules of distancing and isolation (at least in the free world) is a pipe dream. Never mind on a World Wide scale? Slowing it down however to buy time?

    Perhaps our best hope in the short term, lies in the disease just eventually petering out like with SARS? Other than that, most experts predict eventual infections in the millions globally. Social distancing or not! That said I myself haven’t been out in days. Self-isolating after a store I visited 2 days ago closed down, when a clerk who was working there tested — coronavirus positive.

    1. Buying time is exactly what we’re doing. I don’t think SARS petered out, it was stamped out with patient tracing. We could have done that with SARS-CoV-2 if we jumped on it faster. And it might be possible in certain locales if they stay ahead of the curve. Actually, we might buy enough time by sheltering in place to go back to controlling it with patient tracking, but that’s probably not going to happen.

      In the New York Times there were articles by Thomas Friedman and David L. Katz recommending we endure more infection so we can get back to business quicker. But I believe they are being too optimistic. They compared us to the Asian countries that kept control of the disease, and the breakout in New York City shows what will happen if we try to be socially active again.

      I keep waiting for someone to suggest that we pursue a Darwinian solution to save the economy, and that’s almost what Friedman and Katz suggest. But a very gentle, control bit of Darwinian survival of the fittest. I bet sooner or later, we’ll see greedier people claim the economy is more important than a 1 percent death rate. And Katz was close to doing that.

      1. Yes I see. I wasn’t clear. What I meant was SARS petered out under containment like we’re currently trying to do now. Although SARS only reached some 8,000 infected at the time. We blew by that possibility long ago.

        In fact, the numbers we see daily, both of infected and of deaths is of “Currently confirmed cases!” Realistically, to get the true updated daily numbers of infected, one should multiply those numbers by anywhere between 3x – 10x. At least for now until they are officially confirmed to be falling. That takes your numbers of infected today (323,1170) — just low balling at 4 times — to? YIKES!

        So perhaps their tongue in cheek suggestion of allowing “Herd Immunity” is not such a bad one after all? Of course that depends on us becoming immune after being once infected. I’m not aware of that confirmation yet?

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