What The Animal Kingdom Teaches Us About Social Distancing

Monkeys, lobsters and even guppies ... They all have an innate understanding that there's only one truly effective way to contain an epidemic.

Mandrills staying at a safe distance
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — The pandemic is deep into its second wave. Like a nightmare déjà vu from last spring, hospitals are in danger of overflowing, the health situation forces the politicians to act and the economy risks imploding. Humans of course have experienced this all before over the centuries. But it also looks a lot like what has been conditioning the animal realm forever. Let's look back in time, and elsewhere in nature, to see where we are going.

Like in March, in France as elsewhere, exceptional measures have been put in place that hinder our freedom. The spring lockdown was followed by an autumn curfew and then, starting Oct. 30, another, albeit somewhat lighter, lockdown. The moves have sparked criticisms from their first victims: restaurant owners, gym owners, the entertainment and nightlife world. But inaction was not an option. The government would have faced even more backlash had it done nothing.

There are not a thousand ways to stop the spread of a virus. First, physical interactions between individuals have to be limited — without waiting for science to provide us with certainties. Nothing new here: In 1377, the port of Ragusa broke new ground by imposing on ships a 30-day waiting period to ensure no member of the crew had the plague. The deadline was extended to 40 days for travelers arriving by land.

This "quarantine" was not based on any concrete observation; at most, it found roots in biblical references such as the Flood. But there is a consensus among doctors today on the effectiveness of isolation periods in the fight against epidemics, as closed spaces seem to be a favorite environment for viruses to strike. And though there are no definite figures to corroborate this yet, impressive simulations already show how the virus circulates in a room when someone coughs. An anecdotal case in an air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou, China, also showed the routes of contamination.

It makes sense, therefore, to first limit the capacity of enclosed places, especially where people do not wear masks (bars and restaurants, sports halls) or will inevitably be in close proximity to one another (parties of all kinds, nightclubs, concert halls and theaters.)

Closed spaces seem to be a favorite environment for viruses to strike.

Again, we've been there before. Back in medieval times, towns were already shuttering their closed places in the hopes of reducing the spread of evil. In Europe, during the devastating bubonic plague of the mid-14th century, King John II of France closed the public baths. At the beginning of the 17th century, when the plague returned to London, theaters were most often closed. A rule even specified that closure was compulsory as soon as the number of deaths caused by the plague exceeded 30 per week.

1848 chalk drawing depicting the Great Plague of London — Source: Wellcome Collection gallery

At the time, a certain Shakespeare was chomping at the bit. In 1606, his company could hardly perform. And so, he took the opportunity to pen new plays (King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, all written that year). The playwright knew that the disease was passed from person to person, and that care therefore needed to be taken. In Henry IV, Falstaff says ironically: "It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, one of another. Therefore let men take heed of their company."

Survival strategies

Animals, for their part, don't need such advice to be careful. In times of epidemic, they instinctively practice social or rather physical distancing. They do so both to preserve the species and to be able to continue producing despite the situation, as shown in a fascinating study published by ethologists Valéria Romano, Andrew MacIntosh and Cédric Sueur, in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

In some cases, the community confines the sick. A team of French researchers has thus shown that mandrills (a species of monkey related to baboons) use their sense of smell to identify which of their peers are infected with parasites, and spend less time cleaning them to avoid catching their sickness.

Miles away, in the Caribbean waters, an American team observed that a species of lobsters "can identify infected individuals before they become contagious; by avoiding them, they can limit the spread of the disease." In particular, they avoid settling in a sick animal's den. The guppy, a tropical freshwater fish, behaves similarly.

"You washed those claws? — Photo: Jossuha Théophile

In other cases, sick animals self-isolate. Studying mice, a Switzerland-based team showed that "affected animals reduce their movements, quantified by the number of times they enter and leave their nest." On the other hand, their healthy counterparts, aware of their sickness, still do not hesitate to approach them.

And then are ants, which have a very elaborate response for dealing with a disease outbreak. Researchers have found that not only do foragers exposed to a pathogen isolate themselves, but other foragers also reduce their time spent with the rest of the colony. Such disease-induced behavioral responses reduce social connectivity, thereby limiting disease transmission.

In some cases, the community confines the sick.

Man, of course, is not an animal. Or rather, he is an animal, but with far more powerful tools than the others. He can respond to an outbreak with sophisticated drugs and then vaccines. But let's face the facts. If doctors know how to treat COVID-19 patients better than they did six months ago, their remedies are far from being effective enough.

Vaccines are starting to be tested, but there are still many unanswered questions about immunity to the virus, and therefore about the effectiveness of a vaccine. The day a vaccine is eventually ready, we will have to manufacture billions of doses, and then ship them. One of the vaccines currently being tested must be stored at -20 °C, another at -80 °C, and there is, for the moment, no medical logistics able to transport large quantities at such low temperatures.

As we wait for the epidemic to disappear one way or another, we must learn to live with COVID-19. "Just like we have learned how to live with AIDS," business leader Serge Delwasse explained in a recent column. That means wearing masks and, above all, limiting our physical interactions. It's unpleasant for everyone. For some, it's an economic disaster, and those people need support from the community. But for now, there is no better solution.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]


• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."


With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.



An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.


In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️


"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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