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The North Sentinel Island “Incident”: a clear example of network structural, spread of epidemics, and information distribution

In a recent unexpected series of events, the American missionary John Allen Chau was killed upon reaching the extremely isolated North Sentinel Island, which is home to one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world. Though his visit there was very brief, the implications of it are not – currently, Indian officials are faced with the dilemma of how to recover the body without potentially exposing the people on the island to infectious diseases to which they have no immunity. Even the influenza virus is an existential threat to the North Sentinelese people.

This situation exhibits multiple principles we have learned about networks over the course of the semester. Firstly, if we consider all the people in the world as a giant network, we would expect to see one giant connected component – which we do; the overwhelming majority of people in the world are connected to each other through the Internet, media, international trade, etc. Since it would only take one individual connected to the giant component to interact with an individual from another component in order for all people in both components to be connected, examples of “disconnected” groups like the North Sentinelese people are very rare. In this case, the “bridge” would have been John Allen Chau’s connection to any tribe member, had they been amenable to visits from outsiders.

Looking at Google trends, we can see that virtually 100% of searches related to the North Sentinel Island or tribe occurred within the past 10 days, due to the above incident. This island is populated by only an estimated 50-150 people, is 23 square miles in size, and has been declared an exclusion zone by the Indian government – that is, prior to November of 2018, this island had virtually zero “popularity” among the global population. However, it temporarily gained the attention of a massive global audience within the span of days, demonstrating how the Internet can generate an information cascade that spreads news and knowledge about a previously unknown island and group of people to the rest of the world. This is exemplary of the Power Law and the extreme inequalities we see when it comes to “popularity” across networks.

North Sentinel Island Search Trends – past 30 days

North Sentinel Island Search Trends – Past 5 years

Finally and unfortunately, this information cascade is potentially catastrophic to the people on this island. As people hear of this incident, it becomes increasingly likely that someone will try to repeat the attempt made at contact with the Sentinelese. Though John Allen Chau apparently made an effort to get 13 different immunizations and quarantine himself before the journey, neither he nor anyone else can prevent the spread of the innumerable amount of pathogens that exist in the rest of the world. In terms of the SIR model, nearly all of the people on the island could go from “Susceptible” to “Infected” to “Removed” extremely rapidly.


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