Good Game, Covid

Speedrunning the Coronavirus Game

Written and published by Ryan Chou on November 16th, 2020.

We all want to return to normal. We want the schools, the bars, the movie theaters, the gyms … we want our pre-2020 life back.

Instead, we have cases. We have deaths, we have people experiencing symptoms for extended periods of time, and we have people with long-term health effects. These people are our friends and family, members of our communities, or even ourselves.

Instead of the wonderful normalcy that existed before, we now have COVID-19.

And yet, people have expressed a range of opinions on taking strong action against the virus. To better understand why it might be necessary, let’s compare it to the gaming concept of speedrunning.

Speedrunning is when a player attempts to finish a game (or a level) in the shortest amount of time possible.

We want to get back to normal, so it’s time to think about how we can speedrun the COVID game.

Why a Speedrun?

Drawing out the length of the pandemic is not a viable plan. Globally, it’s been projected that 1.75 million will be dead and 250 million will be infected by June of next year. Many others will continue to suffer, for months, from lasting symptoms and long-term organ damage.

On top of this, despite recent, more positive news regarding vaccine development, there still remain many questions about production and distribution. The winter is coming, and the vaccine definitely won’t be here to stop the outbreaks that could occur then.

On the other hand, taking strong action and bringing the virus down to zero, or near zero, now, could allow us to significantly relax restrictions far before the arrival of the vaccine, and, with the support of the vaccine, completely remove the restrictions. It’s the best chance we have to minimize mortality, morbidity, and economic harm in the long run, and allow for a return to normalcy.

What’s the Target?

The first step, before attempting a speedrun, is to know the game, to identify the target. “Return to normal” is relatively vague, so it’s important that we understand what “normal” would be like. The normal that most of us are probably thinking about, is the state of life we had before late 2019.

How many cases did we have then? Zero.

The reason why we were able to safely travel and party was because COVID-19 didn’t exist. Gatherings wouldn’t spread the virus, simply because there was no virus. And we can make it that way again.

That’s impossible, right? Wrong.

We’ve already succeeded in the past. In 2003, the SARS epidemic, caused by SARS-CoV, a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 (as the name suggests), was completely eliminated, with the last case being in 2004. Similarly, Ebola was brought under control in 2016, and later, separate outbreaks were quickly contained. MERS, caused by a more distant relative of SARS-COV-2, was also mostly controlled.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, countries like NZ, AUS, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, and dozens of others have brought their daily case counts to zero or near zero. Doing so has allowed them to significantly relax restrictions without fear of uncontrollable outbreaks. Sure, it’s possible that there might be imported cases (from areas not yet at zero) but it’s significantly easier to quarantine imported cases and contain small outbreaks when they occur. As the analogy goes, it’s easier to fight small fires that appear once the main fire is put out, than to live amid a giant fire.

Game Plan

The next step is figuring out the mechanics of the game. Some people have this experience from the past, others watch those that have successfully beat the game.

Taiwan is one that has learned its lesson from past pandemics well. Early on, it quickly sealed its borders and built up its communication and healthcare infrastructures. The response was made into a nonpartisan effort and the government focused on communicating to its citizens the potential severity of the pandemic.

However, being almost a year into the pandemic, we’re playing a different game. Whereas they simply focused on keeping cases out or isolating outbreaks, we have to focus on bringing the cases down first. A more relevant example is Australia. Regional lockdowns (and the accompanying support for the citizens from the government) allowed safe zones to be created, which were gradually merged with other safe zones. Cases were isolated and traced, significantly dropping the daily case counts, allowing them to reach near-zero.

To do this, they enforced essentiality-based restrictions. People were only allowed to leave their homes for the absolute essentials. Strong crisis communication and leadership by the government, adequate support for the people, and a strong sense of unitedness allowed the plans crafted based on science to be executed, and the case counts to be lowered.

We can do it too, with nine primary actions, and supporting ones. Here are the nine:

  1. Unite the People: Getting to zero will only work if the majority are on board
  2. Limit to the Essentials: Avoid leaving the home for non-essential reasons
  3. Restrict Travel: Create zones to prevent cases from spreading between regions
  4. Isolate Cases: Provide voluntary, supported self-isolation areas so that people aren’t forced to isolate at home and risk infecting their families
  5. Universal Mask Usage: Masks, especially ones with a good seal and filter, are the easiest ways to reduce transmission
  6. Ventilation: Improving ventilation of indoor spaces could greatly reduce transmission.
  7. Protect Essential Services: Make sure they have the PPE they need to continue providing services
  8. Test: PCR test, rapid versions of standard PCR test, and any other test can be used to identify and isolate cases
  9. Communications: Provide people with the guidelines they need to stay safe

It’s Go Time

The target is clear, the game plan is set, and the players are ready. It’s go time. The countries that have yet to eradicate the disease and return to normal now not only have the experiences from past pandemics but also the expertise from other countries that have already beaten this game.

In somewhere between one and two months (more or less depending on where you are), we could be back to school, back to businesses, back to partying. There would be no more suffering or fear. All that’s left is for us to take the “can’t do” attitude, and make it into a “can do” attitude.

And once we successfully speed through this game and crush the curve, we’ll finally be able to say:

“Good game, COVID.”

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