What Is A Social Bubble?

By Ellen Kershner on April 30 2020 in Society

The pandemic shows how the size of the social bubble can affect the spread of an infectious disease in the community.
The pandemic shows how the size of the social bubble can affect the spread of an infectious disease in the community.
  • social distancing can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, panic, and fear
  • New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to institute lockdown measures
  • Flasche also felt that social bubbles might be beneficial for young children
  • A recent Oxford University study looked at how social bubbles could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 after lockdowns end.

Social bubbles come in different sizes, and the coronavirus pandemic has effectively decreased the sizes of these for millions of people around the world. Where in the past one person could socialize with countless friends, family, and coworkers, today’s bubbles now include only a few contacts. Staying in touch with only a few people can be very isolating, and missing family and friends can lead to serious mental health implications. Unfortunately, social distancing can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, panic, and fear.

As the curve flattens, governments are easing lockdowns and allowing businesses to reopen, keeping in mind the priority of preventing a second wave of infections. One area being considered is the gradual expansion of social bubbles, which is thought to ease the problems that social isolation has caused.

New Zealand

Customers wait outside a supermarket following social distancing regulations during the Covid 19 lockdown in New Zealand, April 18, 2020. Image credit: Lakeview Images/Shutterstock.com

New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to institute lockdown measures, and they recently announced that they had eliminated the virus. On April 28, they began an expansion policy, with people returning to work and the economy getting back in line.

Staring in May, New Zealanders can extend their bubbles by a bit to include close family members and caregivers, as long as the new additions reside in the same city or town. However, residents were told to protect their bubbles, and only include healthy people. When looking at New Zealand’s plans for social bubbles, it is important to realize that the country’s population is five million, and they have had only around 1,000 confirmed cases and under 20 fatalities.

Other Countries

 London's normally busy shopping area Oxford Circus, Oxford Street and Regents Street are nearly empty as people are told to self isolate during the COVID-19 coronavirus. Image credit: Heardinlondon/Shutterstock.com

In the UK, England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty said that some social distancing must remain in place until the end of 2020. It is difficult to predict how long their current lockdown will last, and whether or not new social bubbles will become a new way of life.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s (LSHTM)’s Stefan Flasche said that although it is still to early to relax the restrictions there, social bubbles could a valuable "coping mechanism" for residents. The pandemic’s toll on society is considerable, and anything that could help with the social component is worth considering. Flasche also felt that social bubbles might be beneficial for young children, writing that having children enter into small playgroups could be helpful for their social development.

An article on bbc.com described how Belgian authorities were considering the idea of letting residents gather with 10 people every other weekend. Every person would need to have the same exact people in their group, though. Once chosen, no one in the group could meet with anyone else. How would this be enforced? That question is open for debate.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that she was thinking about changing the definition of “households” to permit small gatherings. This would allow people who live by themselves to match up with others living alone, which could create new, small social bubbles.

An Oxford University Study

A recent Oxford University study looked at how social bubbles could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 after lockdowns end. It theorized that changing the structure of social networks – instead of cutting back on the amount of time people socialize – could help flatten the curve further. Per Block was one of the study’s authors, and he claimed that forcing people to remain at home for extended periods of time was not sustainable, and led to mental health problems and other issues.

As a middle ground, the study proposed that instead of unrestricted socializing, people can create small social bubbles of people to connect with. As a starting point, a "birds of a feather" strategy was recommended, with people in the same neighborhoods being in the same bubbles. Other suggestions were school social bubbles, work social bubbles, and family social bubbles.

Risks

Some experts feel that social bubbles have significant risks, and a major one is being able to trust the members. According to Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security infectious diseases physician and biosecurity fellow Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, people who join social bubbles could be putting themselves and their loved ones in danger. ‘How sure are you that the person isn't interacting or socializing with someone that you do not know or that could be at risk for having COVID-19?” he asked.

Kuppalli also stressed the importance of having adequate testing, and ensuring that those who need it are getting it. He added that the only way to stop large outbreaks is to “contact trace, test, and quarantine people who may be contacts of positive cases.”

Harvard School of Public Health Associate Professor of Epidemiology William Hanage also weighed in. He said that refining social distancing is important, but caution is key. Higher-risk populations like the elderly should not participate in social bubbles, he added. Another worry is that people joining social bubbles could already be infected with COVID-19.

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