As communities around the world are starting to open up, many people are hoping to spend time with friends and loved ones they haven’t seen for months of lockdown. There’s no way to eliminate the risk of spreading Covid-19 during those visits. But to help decide who it’s safer to spend time with, an Oxford sociologist asks you to consider the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
The American film star is so prolific, the idea goes, that every working actor is always just six degrees of separation—or fewer!—away from Bacon. Sociologist Per Block, who researches informal social networks and social mobility, uses that concept to frame safer socialization. In a pandemic, you don’t want to be Kevin Bacon: If you’re only six degrees removed from an infected person, the virus can spread relatively quickly. “But if it would be 10 degrees, the whole thing dragged out more,” says Block.
It’s that thinking that informed a study Block recently published in Nature Human Behavior, describing a few kinds of social bubbles that could conceivably slow outbreaks of Covid-19. Each aims to decrease interactions and connections between people—increasing the degrees of separation between healthy individuals and those infected by Covid-19—by creating distinct social groups.
If no one adhered to a social network and mingled with whomever they wanted, we’d expect Covid-19 infections to spread freely:
Infections spread far and wide as people make contact with those in their geographic neighborhoods, their familial and social circles, and their workplace.
Block and his colleagues came up with three kinds of networks that put more degrees of separation between individuals in a community.
In one strategy, you’d make small “micro-communities,” pulled from your immediate block or neighborhood, to limit contact with those farther away. You see very few people, but you see them as much as you want. This way, if there is an infection, it won’t make it too far.
In another, you’d still interact mostly with others in your immediate geographic community, but there may be a few exceptions. These could be the people you saw on a regular basis before the pandemic, like your family, childcare providers (including neighbors or friends taking turns to watch each others’ children), or your coworkers (if you are an essential worker, for example). Build intentional, closed networks with them.
With the last strategy, instead of just repeating interactions with a very small group, your network expands to people who are similar to you in different ways. Maybe your kids are playing only with kids of the same age; if you’re back in an office, maybe you try to limit contact to coworkers who live close to you. In this situation, networks may become more geographically disparate, and it’s harder to keep track of your contacts’ contacts. Of the three, this network approach may have a higher risk of Covid-19 transmission, but it still protects more people from infection than moving around freely without any guidelines at all.
Ideally, Block says, governments and health departments would advise their communities to pick one of these strategies and stick to it, depending on their jurisdiction’s geography and needs. The problem is that choosing may be difficult: In order for these networks to work, everyone within a jurisdiction has to follow them. “If some do not take it seriously, then there’s going to be problems,” he says.
Already, some governments have tried to encourage residents to stick to versions of these bubbles. People living in Canada, for example, have embraced the “double bubble”—a strategy the country reportedly borrowed from New Zealand, which has already re-opened its sports stadiums. Double bubbles allow two households to have close contact with each other while staying isolated from others.
The Belgian government took a similar approach starting in mid-May. It encouraged residents to create any bubble they wished, consisting of two groups of four. Theoretically, that could include multiple groups across households.
As the pandemic has worn on, these countries’ cases have been on a steady decline, suggesting that their plans are working—although Block and his colleagues acknowledge the need for long-term studies to validate the strategies.
No matter what bubble approach you decide to take, it’s important to create your group thoughtfully. You have to think about your needs—perhaps it’s easier to have geographic bubbles if you live in a neighborhood with children the same age as your own, so they can play together. You have to be willing to talk about your daily habits with your group to make sure everyone is comfortable taking on the same level of risk, and decide in advance how you may want to scale up your bubble when the time comes. If anyone has any disagreements, you need to preemptively agree not to have any hard feelings.
And it’s important to remember that no social bubbles have zero risk of infection. Even those who are careful may still pick up a viral infection while doing an essential errand at the grocery store or pharmacy. That’s why even with social bubble strategies, until there are better treatments or vaccines against Covid-19, basic hygiene is critical. The most important bubbles are the ones in your hand soap.
Person icons courtesy of ProPublica