… There’s a good reason to “cancel everything.” All these decisions by public officials and businesses are aimed at one goal: slowing down the spread of the virus to avoid overburdening a healthcare system that doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle a sudden surge of tens of thousands of cases at once. Without mass closings, that surge is exactly what will happen, just as it has in Italy.
It’s called “flattening the curve.” And that’s exactly what it is when you see it visually. Here’s what is looks like in an illustration from Max Roser at Our World in Data, very similar to the figure in a recent Emerging Infectious Diseases study on social distancing to reduce pandemic influenza.
Basically, if you assume a certain number of cases are inevitably going to occur—which epidemiologists can somewhat predict based on how the disease is behaving—continuing business-as-usual allows cases to escalate rapidly in just a few weeks, spiking so high at once that they completely overwhelm hospitals. In such a scenario—such as Italy is facing now—more deaths are likely because there simply aren’t enough hospital beds, enough face masks, enough IV bags, even enough healthy doctors and nurses to care for everyone at once.
But if that same number of cases can be stretched out over months, never quite exceeding the healthcare system’s capacity, then people will get the care they need, more healthcare providers can avoid illness and burnout, and fewer people are likely to die—as South Korea has impressively shown….
The same applies, of course, to restrictions on international travel.