Getting married in a time of Covid

As soon as the lockdown was lifted in 2020, 26 couples in Ipoh rushed to register their marriage in October. Postponing a wedding is painful and wanting to enjoy it sans mask when it finally happens is understandable – but if you don’t want the joyous celebration to become a superspreader event in this time of Covid, it’s best to stick strictly to the SOPS, especially of keeping a mask on as much as possible. — Filepic/The Star

Weddings are meant to be joyous things. A marker of a couple’s commitment to each other. A time for all to celebrate – unless you’re part of a planning committee in these Covid times, that is.

I don’t even have an especially big role to play. It’s Auntie who has to carry the largest part of the burden, of course, as all mothers do when their sons get married.

And it’s a burden she’s had to carry over the last two years, as the event has been delayed and postponed and put off multiple times no thanks to the various Greek-lettered virus variants that now inhabit our daily lives.

The wedding dinner in a few weeks’ time will be a milestone for me given that it has literally been years since I’ve been to a large dinner function. And given that I’ll have to help MC the event, I’ll probably have my mask off to speak to a large crowd, which will be another milestone.

So it’s unsurprising that one of the main things discussed during the planning meetings was the importance of getting across to the guests the strict SOPs that will be in place. The hall will be operating at half capacity, so the 500 guests should be well-spaced out. People will be told they have to stay in their seats and not mingle. And that masks should ideally stay on if they’re not eating/drinking (or speaking at the podium).

My initial reaction is that it’s going to be tough.

Malaysians have demonstrated a reluctance to adhere diligently to SOPs recently. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that the police were investigating a breach of regulations at a “celebrity” wedding, where mingling was rampant and masking non-existent.

And it’s not just the elites in remote highland resorts who are breaking rules. These days, when I walk outside the house, I would say roughly half of the people I see don’t have masks on. And quite a few of them don’t even seem to be carrying masks.

Do people understand the risks involved? I feel that a lot of us have learned to live with Covid-19 – but it’s still a dangerous thing, with lifelong implications if things go wrong. A bit like a toxic marriage, I suppose.

What if I could tell people the risk of bad things happening if they misbehave? What if I could step up onto the stage and say, “If you don’t follow the SOPs, at least such-and-such number of you here will be infected, and this will become a superspreader event”? But such probabilities are difficult to calculate.

Unless you have read a recent paper titled “Practical Indicators for Risk of Airborne Transmission in Shared Indoor Environments and Their Application to Covid-19 Outbreaks” (in Environmental Science & Technology). It just came out earlier in January 2022 and is quite a significant work, with authors from more than a dozen universities, including prestigious institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and England’s Oxford University.

More importantly for the point I’m making, the authors have come up with a spreadsheet that estimates the risk of infection given certain variables. These include everything from the size of the room, the quality of ventilation (how many times is the air in the room replaced in an hour, for example), the number of people, the prevalent infection rate, what kind of variant is dominant, and what kind of masks people are wearing.

I plugged the initial numbers in and the first figure I got honestly shocked me a little: It estimated that there would be about 100 people infected among the 500 attendees.

The obvious driver is that roughly 180 out of 100,000 people in the Klang Valley have had Covid-19 in the last two weeks. (If that number was much lower, for example 1 in 100,000, the risk of infection drops to almost zero.)

There are other significant issues: I assume nobody will be wearing a mask (because they are eating), the event will take a few hours, it’s all indoors with relatively poor ventilation, and people will be talking to one another.

But this number hasn’t incorporated one important thing: It’s very probable that every attendee will be vaccinated. And that makes a significant difference.

The reason I didn’t put in the number straight away is because it’s not a “Yes/No” option on the spreadsheet. Instead, it asks you what fraction of the population is immune.

To estimate this, I used the government’s Covidnow website. This site makes available all the Malaysian data about Covid-19 in an easy to read form (even the underlying raw data is easily accessible, which very few countries seem to have managed to do).

The proportion of vaccinated people getting infected is about a third of those who are unvaccinated. There are a lot of caveats about how easily you can extend this to “percentage who are immune”, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that in a room of 500 people, only about 170 are susceptible. Putting those numbers into the spreadsheet drops the predicted number of new cases from about 100 to about 13. So the probability of an uninfected individual becoming infected is 7.9%.

That’s still too high for my comfort, so I’ll be seeing what else we can do to mitigate the risk. An obvious idea is to make sure everybody self-tests before coming to the event. We could even offer test kits at the door if the well-dressed guests don’t mind being seen spitting into a vial while in the lobby.

And encouraging people to wear masks as often as possible is probably a good thing to do. So I’m going to ask if it’s OK to keep my mask on while making announcements.

I am not sure how it will be taken, though. Because wearing a mask while behind a podium sort of goes against the idea that this is an event celebrating joy. It reminds people about the responsibilities of the real world in contrast to the fantastical, romantic sense of what a marriage is.

So I understand the urge to throw caution to the wind just for the night. But fairytale endings rarely finish with words “... and the wedding went smoothly”. Indeed, somebody usually stresses during the event that the wedding is not the end goal but the start of a marriage. And after two years of trying to get this marriage off to a great start, we all should really do our part to make sure that for everyone, this truly is a happily ever after.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Covid-19 , SOPs , ventilation


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