1, 2, 3, 1, ¾, ½, 1/3

By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 07,2020 - 01:34 PM

I hope I didn’t trigger an anxiety attack for some parents who are tutoring their children in math.

The numbers do represent a pattern, but don’t try to work it out because the sequence was intended to capture the often confusing rules around physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 infections.

We start with “1, 2, 3,” which was a popular slang term in the Philippines to refer to being fooled by tricksters and con artists—as in, “Naku, na-wan-tu-tri ako ng anak ko” (“I was tricked by my child,” usually a son who fools you into giving him money).

The phrase comes from a magician who shouts out, 1, 2, 3, and then makes things disappear from a handkerchief or a box. Quite like how con artists make your money disappear.

A few weeks ago, I got an angry email from one of my readers, arguing that COVID-19 is one big hoax and one of his “proofs” was what he felt was the arbitrariness around physical distancing. Why the variation in the recommended safe distance, he asked—1 meter, 2 meters (and in the US, 6 feet). Reading his letter, I sensed, in his recital of numbers, that he felt he was being subjected to wan-tu-tri.

Indeed, the rules do vary from one country to another, with most of the developed countries using 2 meters. The Philippines recommends 1 meter.

Then recently, a group of physicians headed by former health secretary Manuel Dayrit, and endorsed by 14 business and professional groups, suggested Seven Commandments for public utility vehicles: masks; face shields; no talking and eating; adequate ventilation; frequent and proper disinfection; no symptomatic passengers; and physical distancing.

The last “commandment” was what stirred some controversy, with the group saying the physical distancing could be reduced gradually if the other six commandments were in place.

The proposal was discussed by the Inter-Agency Task Force handling COVID-19, and it allowed the Department of Transportation to start using a 0.75-meter distancing rule starting Sept. 14, to be reduced to 0.5 meter on Sept. 28 and 0.3 meters (that’s one foot!) on Oct. 12.

The staggered plans were cut short when President Duterte ordered a return to the 1-meter rule. What relief I felt learning we were going to stick to 1 meter.

Let’s keep this in mind: The pandemic is still “new” in the sense that it’s been less than a year since its initial outbreak. I know, it seems like a century already, but it really is new, and so expect our scientists to announce new discoveries and new guidelines for treatment as well as prevention.

In the early stages of the pandemic, scientists had to use older studies to suggest a safe distance. I’m still digging up articles to find the source of this 1-meter rule, and so far the oldest study goes back to 1942, when there was a conference on aerobiology (remember that was during the war, with great concern among scientists over biological warfare). A study presented by M.W. Jennison, using high-speed photography, showed that droplets from mouth and nose secretions could travel as far as 1 meter.

Through the years, with more advanced photography, studies have shown that there were tinier droplets that Jennison’s cameras could not capture. Japanese researchers already warned, as early as March 2020, about “microdroplets” that can travel more than 2 meters and stay suspended in the air in an enclosed space with poor ventilation.

Aerology is now a distinct science, involving biologists, chemists, engineers, and their studies show that the “Seven Commandments” proposed by doctors did make sense, but missed out on other risk factors: duration of close proximity, number of people in a given space, direction of people (face to face or side to side, the latter being safer), and even whether people talk softly or are loudly shouting.

Think now of the Philippine context. Can people keep quiet, including not singing, while in a public transport vehicle?

I know the physicians and business groups pushing for a reduction of physical distancing want to allow more people to take public transport as part of reviving the economy. But the reduction could have caused another surge in infections, followed by more drastic lockdown measures, not to mention the costs of treating all the sick people, that would set our economy back even more.

Final point: Evaluate your own risks. If you’re a senior citizen with underlying conditions like hypertension and asthma, as I am, I would go for at least a meter distancing, better two meters, if indoors with many people.

And a room full of people, with aircon?

I won’t even enter the room.

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