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ScienceFebruary 27, 2022

Siouxsie Wiles: Two years on, Flatten the Curve gets an update for 2022

Flatten the Curve 22 feature image

Two years ago Siouxsie Wiles asked illustrator Toby Morris to collaborate on a graphic that went on to go globally viral, kicking off a working relationship that continues to this day. Now, she writes, New Zealand needs a new Flatten the Curve, for a new kind of virus.

It’s almost two years to the day since I first saw a tweet by Dr Drew Harris explaining how using public health measures to slow down transmission of Covid-19 and “flatten the curve” could be “the difference between finding an ICU bed & ventilator or being treated in the parking lot tent”.

I was so taken by the importance of this message – that we should try to keep Covid-19 cases low so they wouldn’t overwhelm our health system – that I wanted to share it far and wide. But what struck me about Drew’s graphic was that it didn’t show how crucial our attitudes and actions were. This is where, as a long-time admirer of Toby Morris’s work, I thought he could help. Soon Toby and I were working on a revamped version of Flatten the Curve, which we released under a creative commons licence in early March 2020.

Our version of Flatten the Curve was an instant success. The first tweet I sent with it garnered over six million impressions. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern held it up at a national press conference. The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Wired shared it. NBC News called it “the defining chart of the coronavirus”. It went, pardon the pun, viral and launched the most productive and impactful collaboration of my career. I’ve lost count of the number of graphics Toby and I have made, but we’ve covered everything from masks, vaccines, and contact tracing to new variants and genome sequencing. You can find most of them here. As a scientist, I’ve always hoped I would be able to make a difference in the world. Over recent years, I’d thought that might be through the work my lab is doing trying to discover new antibiotics that kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs. My collaboration with Toby has also shown me that I can really make a difference through communicating science too. I still find it incredible that our work has been adapted and translated by governments and organisations all around the world.

Ironically, that Flatten the Curve graphic is my biggest personal regret of the pandemic so far. It sent the world the wrong message in those crucial early days. We didn’t need to flatten the curve. We needed to smash it. Almost immediately, Toby and I started working on a new graphic, this time based on a paper published in the medical journal the Lancet. We called it ‘Stop the Spread’, but what we were explaining was what is better known to everyone now as the elimination strategy. Unfortunately, that graphic didn’t go viral. I always wonder if things might have been different if more people had understood the concept and more countries had tried going for elimination.

What happened here in Aotearoa New Zealand, was that we did smash it. With one of the lowest death tolls from Covid-19, we’ve had a very different experience of the pandemic to most other countries. That’s bought us time. Time for vaccines and antiviral medicines to be developed and rolled out. While we’re no longer pursuing an elimination strategy, we’re facing Covid-19 in a very different place to where we were two years ago: with high vaccination rates, better treatments, and a much better understanding of how the virus spreads and how we can stop it.

But we’re also facing a very different virus to the one we faced two years ago. We currently have three different variants circulating in New Zealand, all of them much more infectious than the original virus. Yes, our treatments are better, and lots of people have been vaccinated. But there are still plenty who haven’t taken up the crucial “booster” dose, and we are still rolling out the vaccine to our 5-11-year-olds. On top of that, our under-fives still can’t be vaccinated, and a small number of people have chosen not to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, they are congregating together in large numbers to protest the public health measures we know work. It’s only a matter of time before some of them are infected with a virus they don’t even believe exists.

The problem with the virus evolving to be more infectious is that we’re back to needing to flatten the curve to protect our health system. We have a limited number of medical staff and hospital beds. People also don’t stop having babies, or heart attacks, or strokes, or car accidents, or cancer, or needing dialysis or surgery. The higher our number of Covid cases, the higher our hospitalisations, the less capacity our already stretched health care system will have to deal with everything else it normally deals with. So, get your booster shot, mask-up, scan the Covid Tracer QR codes wherever you go, get tested if you are sick, and isolate when instructed.

Flatten the curve graphic - 2022 version

It’s down to all of us to do what we can to slow the outbreak down and protect ourselves and each other. Keep an eye on the numbers to understand how the outbreak is tracking and check our handy guide below so you can manage your risk of being exposed to omicron and help flatten the curve.


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