A recently released research study examining the 2009 swine flu outbreak indicates that one of the best ways of limited the spread of such illnesses is to remain home and indulge in a bit of television.The authors of the study oversaw an analysis of the television habits of residents of central Mexico occurring in the spring of 2009, the beginning of the H1N1 epidemic.
During that time period, government officials based in Mexico City imposed restrictions intended to limit individuals’ contact with each other in a strategy known as “social distancing” in public health circles. Public school facilities were closed and large-scale public events were cancelled. Television viewing statistics during the time period were used a measure of social contact among those affected by the government’s measures. This was the metric chosen because when people are watching television, they tend to be in their homes engaging in little contact with the outside.
During the first week after the social distancing initiative was launched, Mexico City television watching went up 20% over the norm, according to the study. The boost in viewership was most significant among children and individuals with higher household incomes as compared with other demographic groups.
The study also attempted to model what the outcome might have been if individuals had refused to adjust their behavior in the midst of the epidemic and did not acquiesce to the social distancing measures. Researchers found that new cases of flu would likely have quadrupled over the course of approximately five weeks. However, Mexico City flu cases actually stabilized and ultimately decreased within the same period of time.
University of California Davis economist Michael Springborn has stated that Mexico City’s 2009 swine flu outbreak could easily have been much more devastating without the positive effects of social distancing efforts among the population.
It is worth noting, however, that there is likely a ceiling on just how long individuals will display a willingness to remain segregated in their homes away from others, even if a dangerous epidemic is raging. In the second week of school closures in Mexico City, television viewership began to decline, ultimately reaching normal levels once schools reopened.
Springborn uses this fact to support his assertion that social distancing initiatives as a means to halt the spread of illness likely have a circumscribed lifespan. Eventually, individuals will give in to their impulses and seek outside interactions.
Researchers did not preclude the possibility, however, that Mexico City residents included in the study may have simply stopped watching increased amounts of television but still remained indoors doing alternative activities.