Everyone is coming to terms with Coronavirus and what it’ll mean for themselves and their businesses. Change creates that double-edged sword of opportunity and risk. Capitalising on opportunities and mitigating risks is what a good strategy is all about. However, before we begin to look to the future, we must first understand the current situation and how long it’s likely to be with us.

Many people seem to have formed the view that the isolation we are going through is a 3 to 6-month prospect. The Singapore government is currently saying 12 months. Unfortunately, when reviewing the situation and latest literature I’ve come to the conclusion we’re likely stuck with social distancing and quarantine measures for much longer. How much longer? Until we have a vaccine that can be effectively distributed… Best guess? 18 months.

So quarantine and social distancing is ‘The New Normal’.

My view has numerous assumptions which I’ll unpack below. Let me know if I’ve made a mistake (I’d love to be wrong!).

For the coronavirus to burn out by itself we need to collectively develop herd immunity. What is herd immunity? Here is the definition straight from Wikipedia.

Herd immunity (also called herd effectcommunity immunitypopulation immunity, or social immunity) is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through infection or vaccination.

So the two pathways to end the pandemic are a vaccine or immunity through infection. Immunity through infection has received much press recently in the world’s media as a strategy initially being pursued by the UK government. The plan was to allow the more resilient UK citizens to get infected while protecting the high-risk citizens to hopefully build a level of herd immunity quickly. The UK government has since publicly backtracked away from this approach.

An indicative figure for effective herd immunity is 70% immunity within the population.  So, 70% of a population needs to have been infected and survived to provide sufficient immunity for the pandemic to end. The problem is, and the thing that stopped the UK from implementing such a strategy, is the relatively high proportion of hospitalisation and critical care required for people infected by the coronavirus. Hospitals will be overwhelmed unless we aggressively suppress transmission via quarantine and social distancing to reduce the number of cases occurring at any one time to a relative trickle. Unfortunately, this suppression approach will require a long time for Herd Immunity to be reached. So long in fact that we’re likely to have a vaccine before we get there…

Let’s take Australia as an example –

Australian Population24,600,000
Population infected to achieve Herd Immunity (assume requires 70%)17,220,000
Number of infected people who will show symptoms (70% of population)12,054,000
Number of symptomatic people that will require hospitalisation (20%)2,410,800
Number of hospitalised people that will require intensive care in ICU (30%)723,240
Total Days in an ICU required (assume 5 days per IC person, so 5 x ICU cases)3,616,200
Days filling available ICU beds at capacity (assume 4000 ICU beds)904.05

So assuming we completely max out all available ICU beds in Australia (and this is ICU beds at short-term surge levels; who knows if we can maintain that number longer term) and use them with 100% efficiency (which is obviously impossible) it’ll still take almost 2.5 years to reach 70% immunity within the Australian population.

We can shorten the time by increasing the infection rate and overwhelm our hospitals or we can maintain high levels of social distancing and quarantine and hope a vaccine comes sooner rather than later… Which I suspect is the approach most countries will follow.

So as a business leader, please don’t assume you can hold off the current situation and just outlast this pandemic.  You must embrace change and formulate a strategy that will allow you to survive and hopefully thrive in what will become the new normal.

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Note: Many assumptions were based on the paper published on the 16th March 2020 by the Imperial College COVID-19 response team. You can find it here.