The Math and Science of Quarantine

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases grows, people have taken to practicing social distancing and placing themselves under quarantine; but despite the efficacy of social distance, the transition hasn’t been easy for many.

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By Semoi Khan

When I got home from school on Thursday, March 12, I knew one thing was certain: I was not going to go to school until the COVID-19 pandemic was over. I knew that going to a densely populated school would put my family and others at risk, so I took the most logical measure and quarantined myself. Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down New York City schools on March 13, but now that I’ve been isolated for quite some time, I’m incredibly tired of being inside, and so here I am, writing this article as a way to cope with the indefinite boredom and mild loneliness that come with being quarantined.

As many math teachers at Stuyvesant have pointed out, the spread of COVID-19 is a perfect example of exponential growth; because of the rapidly increasing nature of this type of growth, we must turn to limiting contact between people to curb the dissemination of the disease. The most important goal addressed by social distancing is ensuring that we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system. One of the most common terms being used concerning the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is “flatten the curve.” Often used by healthcare professionals and specialists such as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, “flattening the curve” refers to the two epidemic curves used when analyzing the number of COVID-19 cases. The first curve depicts the number of cases over time in a scenario in which there are no protective measures such as social distancing, quarantine, and isolation. This curve goes above a “threshold line,” which is used to denote the current healthcare system capacity. The second curve shows the number of cases with protective measures and is comparatively flatter, indicating a lower number of cases over a larger amount of time.

Perhaps the best example of the effectiveness of social distancing and quarantine lies at the initial epicenter of COVID-19: Wuhan. Wuhan implemented a city-wide, obligatory quarantine, which many referred to as useless and draconian. However, scientists now understand that the quarantine implemented in Wuhan created a “time lag,” which allowed healthcare systems and scientists outside of China to more adequately prepare for the inevitable arrival of the novel coronavirus. Doctors within China were also able to prepare 120 clinical trials of potential medical treatments for COVID-19 due to the time lag.

Though quarantine has bought the world time and prevented hospitals from being completely overwhelmed, it comes with a few difficulties. For one, social isolation is difficult for many: humans are naturally social creatures, so shutting off contact with others is stress-inducing. Studies have shown that people who constantly experience loneliness exhibit poor immune systems. The psychological effects of quarantine can be seen in the containment strategy that was implemented during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2004. In another study conducted on subjects in Toronto, Canada, 28.9 percent of the 129 quarantined respondents showed an increase in depressive symptoms, as well as symptoms resembling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While many neurotypical people (those without mental conditions or disorders) have been experiencing increases in these symptoms, those with pre-existing mental health conditions are at an even greater risk under quarantine. Many depend on social interaction to maintain their mental health, and isolation can place them in emotionally dangerous situations. For those with depression, social interaction may serve as a means of escape from difficult mental health issues, and cutting off contact with those around them puts them at a heightened risk for depressive episodes and even suicide. Additionally, the economic crash caused by COVID-19 has caused unemployment rates to skyrocket to 30 percent; for many families, this means that their main source of income has completely shut down, leading to financial and consequent emotional stress. Additionally, 45 states have enacted policies to shut down “non-essential businesses,” such as entertainment venues, recreational facilities, and close-contact service providers. Many people recovering from substance addiction rely on their communities for social and emotional support, and the enforced isolation may lead to them restarting their dependence on substances. The implementation of remote learning is also difficult for many special needs students, who may require more care than neurotypical students. Many families of such students have turned to crowdfunding to acquire education plans for their children.

The effects of quarantine have resonated with students all around the world. Sophomore Arwen van Gilst from the Netherlands said, “It affected my family badly because now we have to be more careful with our dad who has cancer…I have just been awful overall, and my mental health declined.” Junior Mohamed Abdelrahim, who is from Belgium, stated, “I think it will be emotionally beneficial, because I don’t have to be around toxic people [at school]. But when it comes to my education, I honestly have no idea.” From the United Kingdom, sophomore Izi Isufi said, “I think it will affect my education badly. I have to teach the rest of the coursework to myself for exams next year, and my siblings are struggling with their coursework.” Stuyvesant senior Andrew Smsaryan stated, “My parents are a lot more panicked, especially since my father’s job at the MTA is considered essential, so my parents encourage me to vigorously clean everything.”

Though many students feel unsure of how to spend their newfound time and balance it with their education, some have found ways to better themselves. From the United Arab Emirates, junior Hala Al-Khatib said, “I’m taking advantage of the free time I have, and I’m working on myself, trying to get better at stuff.” Stuyvesant junior Jonathan Xu explained, “I think quarantine will affect me for at least the rest of the academic year…I expect to spend less time on mandated learning and spend more time on voluntary learning.” For Xu, mandatory learning embodies his studies of “mandated” school subjects, while voluntary learning involves spending time on the subjects he is more passionate about—those that aren’t necessarily taught in school.

The psychological effects of quarantine can feel daunting and difficult to overcome, and it is understandable to feel lost and lonely at times like this. However, it is important to remember that there are resources designed to help lighten the psychological and emotional effects of quarantine. At Stuyvesant, the Wellness Council has started a social media campaign. Sophomore Matt Melucci, who is the vice president of the organization, said, “Our aim is to help lift the spirits of students and to keep everyone feeling connected as a Stuyvesant community.” We must remember that social distancing is a collaborative effort, and though we are unable to help each other directly, we should digitally reach out and take care of one another. Everyone should participate in social distancing; it helps ease the stress on our healthcare system and allows us to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic together.