Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Six Degrees to Contagion - Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic

Small World Networks
Seventeen years ago, in 2003, Professor Duncan J Watts, published a book titled, “Six Degrees, The Science of a Connected Age.”  In it he wrote the following warning, “In a world spanned by only six degrees, what goes around comes around faster than you think. So just because something seems far away, and just because it happens in a language you don't understand, doesn't make it irrelevant.” Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people in the world on average are only six or fewer social connections away from each other.  It has been proven time after time to be true as the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game has demonstrated and the study of the small world networks phenomena.  What this means is you are only six or fewer social connections away from a person living in Wuhan, China where the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak first emerged.  

More thoughts from Professor Watts, “When it comes to epidemics…we are all connected by short chains of influence. It doesn't matter if you know about them, and it doesn't matter if you care, they will have their effect anyway. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the first great lesson of the connected age: we may all have our own burdens, but like it or not, we must bear each other's burdens as well.” All of us are in this global community.  We all share earth, and we are only six or fewer social connections from someone who is infected by the Covid-19 coronavirus.  We might feel we are great distances away from an epicenter, but we are really only a relationship or a handshake away.

Most infectious diseases die out on their own.  One person may infect another, but if they both die before they can infect a third the disease disappears.  If a disease is not easily transmitted it is likely to burn out on its own.  If a person has dramatic or violent symptoms, people will notice and quarantine them quickly and the disease will burn out.  It is the dangerous often asymptomatic and easily transmitted diseases, like Covid-19, that are the most to fear and hardest to detect and stop.  But detect and stop we must.

There is a simple formula that determines when and if a disease will transform into an epidemic, Ro>1 = epidemic.   When the reproduction rate, which is the average number of people an infected person infects is greater than one, then it is likely to become an epidemic.  If one person infects two people, the reproduction rate is two and we are all in big trouble. The higher the reproduction rate, the faster the disease grows and spreads.  Therefore, in the simplest terms - preventing an epidemic, or stopping an epidemic requires keeping the reproduction rate (Ro) to one or less.

Dr. Gerardo Chowell of Georgia State University and his team of infectious disease epidemiologists have calculated that we must reduce our social contacts by 65 percent from what they were before the virus started spreading to hit our needed Ro number.  We must recognize that at least in the case of Covid-19, people and their breath are contagions.

Most epidemics follow a similar path.  They have three distinct phases.  They first start in a slow-growth phase before progressing toward an explosive-growth phase and finally into a burn-out phase.  The slow-growth phase is where we want to stop an epidemic/pandemic in its tracks, or it can cost us tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars as we have all experienced.  Unfortunately, an epidemic early on is hard to identify.  If you have flu like systems, your healthcare provider will likely diagnose it as a common flu. The fact that it might be a new deadlier strain takes additional detective work, testing and time to uncover and identify, which gives the epidemic the opportunity to further spread.  By the time a new disease is recognized as an epidemic it has often already entered the explosive-growth phase.  So, clearly, we must get better and faster at recognizing emerging epidemics and implementing isolation plans and strategies that are well-rehearsed.  

In the past, these discussions were hypothetical.  Today, we are all seeing the direct impact and costs of being ill-prepared.  Our responses today are no more advanced than what two cavemen would do - Og is ill, stay away from him.  This generation has seen the impact of a deadly pandemic and will be paying the costs for the rest of their lifetime.  We have the right technologies and science to defend ourselves against Covid-19 and future pandemics – it just takes leadership, organization, motivation, unity and directed communal investments.

Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
View my profile on LinkedIn
Follow me on Twitter @krbenedict
Join the Linkedin Group Digital Intelligence

***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.