Japanese supercomputer shows how high a barrier you need if your coworker won’t show basic courtesy during the coronavirus crisis.

With the lifting of local governments’ official states of coronavirus emergency in Japan, a number of people who have been telecommuting from home are now transitioning back to working in offices. At the same time, though, health officials are still largely encouraging people to refrain from gatherings with other people.

Those two things are sort of opposites, since it doesn’t matter if you’re spending time in a movie theater, restaurant, or office – being around others in an enclosed space can increase the risk of coronavirus transmission, and there’s a particularly concerning aspect with Japanese offices.

As shown in the photo above, in Japan, most office workers don’t have private offices. Even upper managers generally sit in a common room with the rest of the staff, with workers taking a seat at “islands” of desks. For pretty much your whole shift, you’ve got someone next to you, and also in front of you, who’s facing you as they sit on the opposite side of the table.

Obviously, that means a lot of people breathing on, or at least close to, each other, which isn’t a desirable situation with an airborne virus going around. But what’s even worse is what happens when someone coughs without covering their mouth.

Japan’s RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research, also known as the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, recently ran a simulation of what happens to all the particles that fly out of a person’s mouth when they cough. The video below shows the results, and as you’ll see when you hit play, they’re disgusting and disturbing.

The simulation at the start of the video shows what would happen even if Japanese offices added mouth-high solid barriers between workers. After the stream of particles initially contacts the barrier, their momentum takes them up and over the wall. At first it looks like they’re going to drift away, but as the clear the top of the barrier their speed slows, and they settle back down directly into the face of the person sitting in front of the cougher.

The simulation was performed using RIKEN’s Fujitsu-processor Fugaku supercomputer. A second test, shown at the video’s 8-second mark, shows that in order to keep the person in front of the cougher from being smothered in particulate matter, the barrier would have to be as high as the top of the cougher’s head, and even then some of the mouth-sourced funk falls onto the other person’s desk.

There’s more bad news at the video’s 22-second mark, which shows a train. While it might look unrealistically crowded to commuters from other countries, such conditions are common at rush hour in Japan’s largest cities.

For this simulation, RIKEN calculated what would happen to the flow of air on such a train if it were moving at a speed of 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) per hour with its windows open. As the colored lines show, the air moves about the carriage, but never really leaves the train, and thus no significant ventilation is taking place. Many rail operators in Japan have begun leaving their trains’ windows open as a coronavirus countermeasure, but RIKEN’s simulation says that if the trains are as crowded as they usually are when everyone is commuting to work, it really won’t make a difference.

With Tokyo’s infection numbers showing an uptick this week, hopefully RIKEN’s data will encourage employers to allow employees who can to work from home, and even if it doesn’t, it’s a sobering reminder that continuing to wear a mask while at the office is a wise choice, and that above all else you should always, always cover your mouth when you cough.

Source: NHK News Web via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2)
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where in addition to the importance of covering your mouth, he thinks the Fugaku simulation is also an important reminder of the importance of breath mints.