Toby Morris
Toby Morris

ScienceMay 18, 2020

Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris: A note on noisy places and Covid-19

Toby Morris
Toby Morris

Covid-19 loves environments full of shouting and singing, so it’s a good idea to avoid them.

Many countries around the world are beginning to ease their Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, including New Zealand. For some countries this is a serious mistake and almost guarantees that in a few weeks’ time they will see a resurgence in cases. The situation is quite different in New Zealand, and I’ve explained why here.

A few days ago, I explained some key rules for “playing it safe” under these looser restrictions, beautifully illustrated as always by Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris. One of the rules, “keep it quiet”, generated a bit of, well, noise, on social media. Was I advocating some kind of Orwellian suppression of society? Not quite!

While we’ve been focused on sneezes and coughs as an important way by which Covid-19 can spread, analysis of clusters from around the world are pointing to others, especially in the few days before people with the virus start to show symptoms. I wrote about a couple of the studies here. This one, describing Covid-19 in a South Korean call centre, is a good example. Over the space of a week, 94 of the 216 people working on the same floor of a high-rise building came down with Covid-19. Most of them worked on the same side of the building. You can see the floor’s seating plan in the diagram below. The desks of those who got Covid-19 are shown in blue.


In a nutshell, numerous studies are showing that badly ventilated or air-conditioned indoor spaces where people are crowded together and need to shout to be heard are hotspots for the spread of Covid-19. So too are places and events where people are singing and shouting. And another recent study just showed that when people are talking loudly they can generate thousands of “oral fluid droplets”, which can hang around in the air for as long as 14 minutes in what they describe as a “closed, stagnant environment”.

In light of this, “keep it quiet” is all about minimising the amount of loud talking, singing, and shouting we do in indoor environments.

We need to make workplaces and venues less noisy and crowded, whether that’s by turning down music or reducing the number of people in a place at the same time. Keep it quiet also means not doing any communal singing or shouting indoors, especially in places where other people are gathered. This has implications for choirs, churches, and Kapa Haka groups.

According to an article in Christianity Today, churches in Germany are developing plans to reopen but with face masks being worn and restrictions on singing. Here in New Zealand, some religious groups and their supporters are pressuring the government to allow them to reopen to half of whatever their spaces can accommodate. For some of the country’s “mega-churches” this would be a lot of people gathering together and could see the emergence of massive clusters of Covid-19 if there are any cases still out there.

I’m really concerned that some groups and people aren’t listening to what the evidence is saying about the spread of Covid-19. This statement put out by City Impact Church says it all really. They argue that “our church people are generally highly responsible and hopefully better behaved on the whole compared to some behaviour at late night bars etc”. The need for comfort and physical contact is a human one. Ideas like the one in the statement feeds into the classic “good” versus “bad” behaviour that keeps stigma dangerously alive and well to the detriment of all of us.

Keep going!