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Covid-19: how to choose your ‘social bubble’

Are ‘social bubbles’ better than physical distancing — and can the concept work in India as we slowly emerge from the lockdown?

People eating dinner in so-called quarantine greenhouses in Amsterdam
People eating dinner in so-called quarantine greenhouses in Amsterdam (Photo: Getty Images)

In May, Belgium started experimenting with “social bubbles" as a means of easing the restrictions that had been put in place to curb the spread of the pandemic. The country had imposed a lockdown on 18 March, and with more than 9,500 deaths from the outbreak so far, it remains one of the hardest-hit regions in Europe. Earlier this month, as the country gradually began to open up, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said Belgians should meet a maximum of 10 friends a week—a so-called personal bubble. Honouring that rule, she added, would depend on citizens showing responsibility, not enforcement by authorities, a Reuters report explained.

What is the science behind “social bubbles"? After all, Belgium is not the only country that is exploring this concept: New Zealand and England are other examples. A paper from researchers at the University of Oxford, published earlier this month, explains how the “adverse social, psychological and economic consequences of a complete or near-complete lockdown demand the development of more moderate contact-reduction policies". They introduced and assessed the effectiveness, using simulation models, of three strategies that relied on “less confinement" and allowed strategic social contact while still flattening the curve.

The first model relies on contact with similar people. They could be people of the same age, in the same neighbourhood (those who are geographically close) or people in the same department once businesses restart. The second strategy revolves around strengthening communities. As the paper explains, individuals must consider with whom their contact partners usually interact. “For example, two friends should only meet if they have many other friends in common. Keeping contact in cohesive communities characterized by triangles can contain virus spread in local regions of the networks," the paper adds. The third strategy encourages building bubbles “through repeated contact". You must decide with whom you regularly want to interact and, over time, restrict the interactions to those people only—essentially, repeated mixing with a small group of contacts.

Per Block, a sociologist at the University of Oxford who led the research team, explains on email how the composition of these bubbles, if implemented, should be decided by people. “The main consideration should be with whom I would want to have contact most over the short- to medium-term future, considering that I will not be able to change this group regularly," says Block, whose research areas focus on social networks.

There’s also debate on whether “social bubbles" can be more effective than “social distancing" during the pandemic. “Instead of blanket self-isolation policies, the emphasis on similar, community-based and repetitive contacts is easy to understand and implement, thus making distancing measures more palatable over longer periods of time," the researchers reason in the paper.

Yashpal Jogdand, assistant professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, says that when it comes to recognizing people’s need to connect with each other and provide social support, social bubbles is a better strategy than social distancing. “However, I am not sure the social bubble strategy is more efficacious than social distancing for mitigating the spread of infection," adds Jogdand.

A rapid research report from the London School of Economics and Political Science, which studied the use of bubbles in New Zealand, found that “being able to mix with others in a multi-person household bubble was a profoundly life-enhancing, sometimes even life-saving, opportunity" for some people.

The report (Living In Bubbles During The Coronavirus Pandemic: Insights From New Zealand) explains how most people only expanded their bubble by merging with one other exclusive bubble: “Their decisions involved careful attention to both the risk of contagion and the emotional and care needs of people in their social network." This included a “buddy system" for people who were particularly isolated or had “complex childcare needs". The report, published in May, also revealed how those who had been struggling with mental health during Level 4, the strictest level of lockdown in the country, found it extremely useful to reconnect with their wider networks of support.

Jogdand says humans are social beings in the true sense of the word and many of our basic needs are satisfied only in the company of others. “Our social connections provide us with meaning, resources, purpose and belonging," he adds. “That is why we care about our social bonds. In fact, we have an innate need to belong. So practising ‘social distancing’ in these times or staying apart from friends and family compared to a stranger is going to have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of a person," he says.

Can “social bubbles" work in India? Block says the scientific rationale for it works independently of the local context. However, given the differences in everyday life in different parts of the world (for example, in terms of work arrangements, city structure or household size), details about how a social bubble policy might be implemented is likely to differ from country to country. It should rely on public health experts with a good understanding of the respective contexts of each country, says Block.

Jogdand, though, is sceptical. He believes that the “social" part of the social bubble strategy will operate very differently in India compared to Belgium and New Zealand. “I think the major issue in the Indian context is that of stigmatization of many of the marginalized, poor and covid-proximal communities—of late, medical practitioners, nurses, sanitation workers and so on," he says. “The strategy of social bubbles will be useful to some sections of the Indian middle class to sustain in a difficult time but it might do nothing to address issues of stigma, apathy and exclusion."

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