I truly believe that a) the gross overestimation of the amount of toilet paper required for 2 weeks & b) the inability to understand how serious the COVID-19 crisis is, are both due to our society’s real fear of math. That’s why, once this pandemic is tackled, the education system should clearly be next. I also think that mainstream media is failing at presenting the math behind COVID in a way that’s accessible to the general public, despite knowing the general public’s math related anxiety. But until both the education system and the media industry shape up, I’m on a mission to break down the math behind the dangers of COVID-19 in a way people can actually understand, like I did on CBC last week!
Unfortunately, math concepts are often presented with very little, if any context, of what the numbers truly mean to the bigger picture. As a result, when we don’t understand what the numbers thrown at us actually mean, we end up dismissing what might be important, and freaking out over what doesn’t matter. So right here, right now, I’m going to debunk 3 basic math myths about COVID-19. Before you back away from the concept of math, trust me, you will totally understand if you made it past Grade 6, regardless of whether you hate(d) math or not.
Don’t worry. I’ve got you. Let me break this down so that we can all get on the same page: the dangers of COVID-19 and the prediction of the potential spread if we don’t all #stayhome, is not prophecy; it’s math.
#1 Don’t worry, it’s just like the flu!
There are many reasons why this isn’t “just like the flu,” but I’m going to focus on the one most likely to change your mind about whether you should give care or not. One of many the reasons COVID is spreading like wildfire is because it is contagious for much, much longer than any other virus we’ve seen. If you have the flu, there is a 5 day period during your illness when you are contagious (you can give it to someone else). However, with COVID, you can be contagious for up to 14 DAYS. AND you can spread this virus without ever feeling a single symptom yourself. That means that way more people get COVID-19, way faster. In case you missed it, that’s the math part. One infected people can lead to MANY infections, putting an entire community at risk. You may have heard about how New Rochelle, New York under complete lockdown, with people receiving food packages to their door because they can’t leave, and the entire community is infected or quarantined? It has been traced back to ONE guy who spread it to 50 people in THREE DAYS, and those 50 people infected everyone around them, basically setting off a Corona virus chain reaction. DON’T BE THAT GUY. STAY HOME.
#2 We’re looking at the wrong numbers in the wrong column!
Is anyone following the Worldometer stat updates as obsessively as I am?! As easy as it is to stare wide-eyed as the number of infections climbs, it’s also easy to miss the two final but telling columns on the far right: cases and deaths per million population. Had our pal President Trump been reading those columns, he might have realized early this week that the US was already worse off than China. Why? Because while China had more cases than the US, their population is almost FIVE TIMES THE SIZE! As a result, comparing absolute values (like the number of deaths per country) doesn’t tell us much, we need context (total per country in relation to population size). As of today, the US has had 304 cases per 1 million population which China has had 57. That means that the US has almost SIX TIMES the amount of cases that China does, per million people.
#3 The death rate is higher than you think!
You’ve heard a lot about flattening the curve etc etc etc and cool cool cool, we get it, we don’t want cases or deaths to spike, that graph looks more chill when it’s flat, but I want to focus on WHY we really need to flatten that curve. And the reason is: the spikier that thing is, the higher the virus’s effective death rate will be. “But why Vanessa? The virus doesn’t mutate into a deadlier, more vindictive virus the more people that get it!” Well my wise ones, you’re right. But what happens is that the more people get it, the less resources we have to help those people, so more of them will die because they won’t be able to access the healthcare they need to recover. Let’s look at Italy for example, a country currently dealing with a tragic and heartbreaking health crisis as a result of the pandemic. The death rate is the highest in the world at 10.5 % which is horrific, but also very informative mathematically speaking.
Why is the death rate in Italy 10.5% instead of the 2ish % that the virus supposed to have? Well, one reason is definitely how much testing a country is doing. But another MAJOR reason is that as a country’s resources start getting eaten up by sick patients, more patients simply can’t get the care they need, and die. That is exactly what’s happening in Italy where they are literally turning people away from hospitals and choosing who gets to live and die. This past week, over 400 people have died every night, and the number has climbed to 919 in ONE NIGHT as the week has progressed. They don’t have the resources to treat people any more, so they are left to die.
So the next time someone is all “whatever man, it’s just like the flu!” You can remind them of the tragedy unfolding in Italy, and of the math you’ve learned here today. When flu season happens, people have the space and resources to recover. During COVID times, that just in the case. Ontario is predicted to run out of hospital beds by mid-April. This is NOT just like the flu. So please take this seriously, please stay safe, and please stay home.
Keep up with Vanessa through her amazing work at the Math Guru and be sure to hit her up for all of your or your loved ones’ mathematical learning needs!