It’s the math, stupid.

April 13, 2020

The real pandemic starts the day lockdown ends. 

The coronavirus is a crisis of math.

The coronavirus is an easy problem to solve…if we understood exponentials.

Unfortunately, the human mind is incapable of grasping exponentials. We cannot intuitively perceive how a small number can grow so large in such a small amount of time.

An Indian parable is relevant at this point.

A king wanted to reward the inventor of chess and asked him to name his prize. “I want you to fill up the entire chess board with wheat. One grain of wheat on the first square, 2 grains on the next square, double that on the next square for 4 grains, 8, 16, 32 and thus fill up the entire chess board,“ said the inventor.

At first, the king was offended, and thought his paltry request was a joke, but the inventor of chess was serious. So, the king told his servants to fill up the chess board. The servants came back and told the king that it couldn’t be done. They had used up the entire wheat stock of the kingdom. There was no more left to continue to fill the chess board. Just the last square alone on the board would require 9 trillion grains of wheat.

Just like the king in this story, every world leader has been fooled by a small number of coronavirus cases and the power of exponential growth.

We are accusing China for hiding the exact number of cases. But the important aspect is that 80,000 cases in two months should have been enough for us to wake up to the scary reality of this exponential growth. Despite seeing the data, the world leaders did nothing.

Some basic math around the virus:

  • Starting from the first locally transmitted case in the US on February 26, 15 cases have grown to ~460,000 cases (April 9th) in only 6 weeks, in spite of lockdown measures being taken all over the country. On April 8, there were 31,000 new cases. Yesterday, there were 34,000 more new cases. And today, there will be even more.
  • There is no current indicator that the virus’s exponential growth will stop. Our current lockdown measures have slowed the rate of this exponential growth. But due to the nature of exponents, decreasing the rate of exponential growth still leaves you growing exponentially, and only marginally slower.
  • Exponential growth can only stop if there are no more people left for the virus to infect in its environment.
  • There is a ~1% mortality rate for the virus in the best circumstances. Assuming our health care system can handle the influx of new cases (flatten the curve), if every US citizen got coronavirus, ~3 million people would die.
  • Stopping exponential growth without infecting the full population requires cutting off the supply of healthy individuals that can be infected.
  • The incubation period of the virus is ~14 days. If everyone is in complete isolation for 4–6 weeks, the virus will disappear. Complete isolation means no going out for any reason at all. No walks, no groceries, no “essential” businesses. This has been proven successful in China.
    This is effective because those within a household where no one is infected will have no means of contracting the virus without outside contact. For an individual who may have the virus, they will only be able to pass it to those quarantined with them, with 4–6 weeks as enough time for the virus to pass through the whole household. Those who end up at the hospital would only return to their homes once they are cleared of the virus.

We have two choices:

  1. Everyone in the world gets the virus, so that it can no longer spread. The body count would be horrific.
  2. The whole world synchronously goes into a complete lockdown for 4–6 weeks. The effects on the global economy would be horrific.

Every nation is eagerly awaiting to lift its lockdown as soon as there are fewer cases. But when 15 cases become 460,000 in 6 weeks, how is it ok to lift a lockdown when we are down to, say, “only 100 new cases” in a given day? Once again, our human mind is incapable of thinking in exponentials. We will not have learned from history — a history that occurred just two months ago.

The real pandemic will start the day we start lifting the lockdown.

Every country or state has announced a date at which lockdown will be lifted. They should instead declare that they will lift the lockdown the day the number of new cases has been zero for the past two weeks. Period.

We are setting ourselves up for a cycle of partial lockdown for weeks, followed by a lift, then a lock down again when the spread picks up — over and over again, for the better part of the year, at best. In the process, we will lose millions of lives, as well as our economies.

If we take a hit of some percentage loss in the world GDP by locking down the entire world synchronously, we could save millions of lives. Or we do nothing and millions get killed with a loss in GDP anyway.

The reality is that we will lose lives as well as the economy — just because we didn’t bother to understand the math.

We have a choice to make: do we want to throw money at the problem, or throw bodies at the problem?