The Mathematics of a Pandemic


I had been teaching math all day long to eight youngsters ranging in age from seven to teens. One of my lessons was on statistical data and how to find different kinds of averages. I used Covid-19 as an example for my student. It was a bit of a stretch but he got the idea. We even talked about what exponents do to numbers and how data can be used to analyze situations and make predictions. It got me to thinking of how differently people are reacting the the virus and the restrictions associated with them based on where they live and sometimes even their political leanings. The truth is that many of the conclusions that people draw do not take all of the information and intervening factors into account. So forthwith is a very elementary discussion of what I believe is happening, but first I want to talk about what occured with the Spanish flu of 1918.

World War I was at an end and the troops were coming home to the United States. Since the fighting was mostly confined to Europe it was natural that the ship first came mostly to ports along the east coast. Additionally some cities like Philadelphia were initially rather lax in enforcing rules to keep down the level of contagion. As a result the highest incidence of contagion and death trended in cities in the eastern part of the country first. As the flu moved westward more stringent efforts of social distancing resulted in fewer illnesses and deaths. In other words the people learned from the mistakes of their fellow citizens in the east and profited by being more vigilant. There were still may deaths but the numbers were mitigated by the measures derived from observing the problems in the places where the flu first presented itself. 

Today we have massive numbers of people traveling across the globe with places like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles serving as ports of call for cruise ships and air travel. It appears that the first cases of Covid-19 in the United States were travel related, but because there initially were few attempts to change our normal activities the virus soon spread through community interactions. It took a bit more time than it should have to approach the realization that people needed to protect themselves and thereby flatten the exponential curve of contagion by staying at home.

Only a little more than three weeks ago spring break was in full swing. The Houston Rodeo was still packing in tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. My grandson went to New York City with his orchestra to perform in Carnegie Hall. Mardis Gras had attracted massive groups of people. It was already a bit too late to eliminate the suffering that now plagues many cities in the country but the heartland of middle America has been somewhat spared by finally closing down schools, businesses, churches and all unnecessary gathering. Sadly, some people have misinterpreted the slowdown of cases in those areas as an indication that the whole pandemic is nothing more than a hoax, much ado about nothing.

I’ve been looking at pie charts for the Houston area. Rather amazingly the sixty and older crowd makes up very few of the current cases. My guess is that people in that demographic hunkered down rather early for fear of catching the virus so they have mostly stayed well. I for one have been outside of my home fewer than five times for the past month. One time I accompanied my husband to Methodist Hospital for his heart surgery. On another occasion I went to get a Prolia shot for my  osteoporosis and twice I went to pickup  groceries at HEB. Aside from that I have been home watching the world go by from my windows. It’s little wonder that most of the cases in our area are younger than is typical because they often tend to be the ones who seem to think that they are safe from infection or having a serious case.

It is incredibly important that we not get overly irritated about having to stay home. We are the defense against a surge of Covid-19 as long as we follow the guidelines. If we start to get lax we will undoubtedly experience an unnecessary surge in cases that will only result in prolonging any agony that we may be feeling. I sincerely believe that each of us has a moral duty to work together to keep the numbers at a manageable level.

There are a many things that greatly disturb me, but most egregious of all are the people who insist that this whole ordeal is some vast political conspiracy designed to make our president and our country look bad. Many of these folks are refusing to stay at home even as the numbers of infected individuals grow. They don’t appear to notice that even President Trump has finally abandoned his wishful thinking that we will be back to normal by Easter Sunday. So far the facts demonstrate that the medical community has been right on target with both their predictions and their recommendations. It’s time for us to listen to the mathematics of the pandemic.

I’m as worried as anyone about what a prolonged period of isolation will do to our economic well being. I suspect hard times even once we are able to resume our normal routines. Nonetheless I keep reiterating my observation that it is rather doubtful that all the leaders of the world would be willing to trash the global economy on a whim. This is serious or as Angela Merkel said, “Es ist ernst” and we need to treat it as such. It would be even better if we might do it in a spirit of harmony. It’s the patriotic thing to do.