Intellectual Pandemic

If we are in the “spared” age group, the closest we have come to a pandemic is on Netflix, where hollywood flicks like Contagion and World-War Z are on top of consumer charts. Since December 2019 COVID has been ruthlessly claiming the lives of those who have possibly heard first hand accounts of the infamous Spanish flu from their parents. Between 1918 and 1920, the world suffered close to 17-100 million deaths at the hands of a virus whose origin is still in conjecture. How many are expected to perish to COVID? Uncertainities, fractions and percentages are all useless here, because as we have learned in the last 3 months, our collective intelligence is quite poor.

Scientists are rushing to produce variants of the Susceptible-Infected-Recovered (SIR) epidimiological model to estimate the spread of SARS-COVID-2, as Nature and Science journals have reported with their spike in publication. As we have learned over the course of several such model reports, the most known variant by Neil Ferguson was written over 13 years ago. The public outrage was tied to his practice of not documenting code, a code that the public does not understand anyway. The public has taken to reviewing these models themselves, through Twitter and other social media channels. Clearly, because we have more time to work from home, our peer reviews have diversified and accelerated. Where one global health researcher nonchalantly speaks of mass death toll and infected number of cases (baseline India: population ~1.3 billion), another is hopeful of seeing a vaccine, in addition to forecasting huge numbers (baselines the US: population ~ 350 million). What the public doesn’t understand is the internal wirings of models they use.

Models are black or white boxes synthesising decades of field, desk and lab research into equations, heuristics and algorithms. There is one truth to every model: if the wiring is known, with some scientific rigor we can estimate the relationships between what goes in and what comes out. Global health researchers are not out of sync in their models and its outputs. Three things are exceptionally clear from their message. First, we have to provide our health care workers with the strongest line of defense including proper safety gear, testing kits for themselves and the public, change in shifts for enough rest and support to deal with the long term trauma this pandemic is likely going to leave them with. Second, we have to wrap our minds around social distancing. Today’s lockdown is our new reality and will fluctuate between relaxations and restrictions until either the virus mutates into a less lethal strain similar to a flu, or we get to an antiviral treatment or vaccine and are able to undertake mass production, distribution and testing of its effects. This has to be complemented with funneling billions of dollars for rapid research for production of medication or vaccine (not academic modelling). Third, lockdowns are not enough. If we want to avoid a second more violent wave, we need to undertake massive testing and contact tracing efforts (like South Korea and Singapore) to isolate the virus in our communities. What is more, if borders open again, a single flight from a country without poor measures in place could reinitiate the pandemic. Inspite of having access to the most complex, undocumented and well-researched models, the death toll is rising. If one were to make any deductions from our global response to the COVID-19 crisis, our society largely overlooks the dynamic effects of complex systems.

What did we do? First, we contained the news of the virus in Wuhan to protect an autocratic regime’s reputation at best and a full-blown economic fallout at worst. Then, we simulated the real-life version of the Hollywood flick, Contagion, where patient 0 travels from Hong-Kong to the US, unwittingly and inadvertently initiating the pandemic. Many people suffered in the film and over-the-top display of rioting eventually paved way for a vaccine. Interestingly, a world famous epidimiologist, Lawrence Brilliant, worked as a consultant for the blockbuster that has reached the top of the charts on Netflix. In the real world, carriers of the SARS-COVID-2 virus travelled from Wuhan to the rest of the world, and patients started popping up on the radar of WHO, in countries like South Korea, Italy and Singapore. We still didn’t learn anything. Italians took to Twitter streets to warn the world of what’s coming. However, globally, governments struggled to organise their thoughts… and models, to come to the conclusion that their residents will die as well, from the lack of healthcare capacity and no measures in palce for social distancing to work in its full-effect.

While some universities like MIT shut doors, asked their students to vacate dorms, and internationals to go back to their home countries for the rest of the semester, others struggled to take simple decisions like closing down the physical spaces of congregation.

When you are a man of models, a professor who professes to academic research, and your partner is a health care worker putting her life on the line for people, it is hard to look at mo