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Until 2020 it was almost cliché to repeat the late writer F. Scott Fitzgerald's words, which remind us how a first-rate intelligence must hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still find a way to make due. But in a recent memo, Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates enacted the modern adage, advocating a better public grasp of the possibility that everything we know about the COVID-19 coronavirus is less of a story than it is an unfortunate warning, to catch on.
"[T]here is a lot of information available — much of it contradictory — and it can be hard to make sense of all the proposals and ideas you hear about." As our eyes are constantly saturated with assurances that we have every scientific edge in the fight against this disease, the truth is: we don't. This is why — according to Gates — a somewhat technical review and analysis of the coronavirus situation is needed, so the global community of innovators, engineers, and frontline healthcare workers can consolidate the litany of information into actionable intelligence.
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Growth and decline in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic
When the coronavirus outbreak began, the world saw an exponential rise in cases across several countries: first in China, then throughout greater Asia, then Europe, and the United States. The number of infections doubled, over and over, every month. If the global population didn't react to the threat, nearly everyone alive would have caught the virus, and many wouldn't be with us now. It's comforting to note that many countries landed a serious blow against the pandemic by practicing social distancing measures and modifying behavior, which created a plateau in the infection rate.
However, as this happened, cognitive blindspots appeared in our understanding of the coronavirus crisis. Ones that come from a lack of understanding of official projections. For example, if an official says 2% of the population is infected and adds that this figure will double every eight days, most people may be slow to know this also means we're only 40 days away from the majority of the population being infected. Altering social behavior helps reduce the infection rate dramatically, lowering the growth rate so that, instead of the infection rate doubling every eight days, it shrinks every eight days.
Reproduction rate, a key term
A key term for people tracking the spread of COVID-19 is the reproduction rate, or R0 (an R followed by a zero, pronounced "are-naught"), which calculates how many new infections are the result of earlier infections. R0 isn't easy to measure, but we know it's less than 1.0 wherever cases are decreasing, and above if they're growing. Additionally, ostensibly minor shifts in the value of R0 can signal very big changes.
When the rate of infection declines exponentially, the decline will look stunning. People overwhelmed by overloaded hospitals in April could be dumbfounded if in July they find they are filled with largely empty beds. This is the cognitive whiplash we should be happy to learn to work with, should our local communities maintain behavior changes like social distancing, and drag out the flattened plateau in the curve.
Varying coronavirus impact in different countries
China, the origin of the virus, was able to implement stringent isolation and widespread testing to slow the momentum of the spread. Wealthier countries, with tourists and traveling business people coming in and out from every corner of the world, were next on the coronavirus pecking order. Countries that moved into testing and isolation quickly were most successful in curbing large-scale infection. This also meant that fast-acting nations dodged the need to shut down their economies.
Testing ability accounts for much of the variation between countries. It's impossible to beat a bully you can't see or track, so testing is critical to curbing the COVID-19 disease's growth, and putting the economy back on track to a soft reopening.
Crucial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19
Our understanding of the global illness is critical to help us build the right tools and practice effective policies. There are several key epistemic objects we still don't grasp. There are also numerous studies underway to answer the tough questions, including one in Seattle, under the purview of the University of Washington. The worldwide collaboration on these challenging issues is awe-inspiring, and we should take solace with the greater amount of knowledge that will come with Summer.
Nearly every known respiratory virus (like the coronavirus) is seasonal. If COVID-19 is too, it will mean a reduction in infection rates in warmer weather. This seems like good news, but it could be more insidious: if we relax social distancing measures too soon, we might find ourselves in a vulnerable position come Fall, and Winter 2021. However, we already know from countries in the southern hemisphere — like Australia and others — that COVID-19 in the Summer isn't much weaker, compared to the way influenza does.
Opening schools is a paradoxical proposition because, since younger generations have a lower risk of becoming seriously ill, there's a temptation to open schools too early. Even if the young don't become ill, they can still spread the disease to older generations, when they come home every day.
Knowing where one stands amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Gates stresses that people at higher risk for infection should be the focus of tests, since they are in short supply in many locations worldwide. One common factor in spreading the virus is contamination from contact with fecal matter, which infected people often shed.
Most susceptible to the disease are the elderly, who are also most likely to perish from infection. Knowing how race, gender, and previous health conditions affect survival rates is in many respects still an open question ripe for scientific study and testing in the global community.
For now, the entire human species fights for survival against the onslaught of the COVID-19 outbreak, forcing a massive population of the world's workforce to work from home. If this were a world war, the nations of the world would (or should) be on one united side for the first time. To Bill Gates and other major tech influencers worldwide, it's perhaps time to understand that this is not a conventional war, but also a time to take solace in accepting that we can and must adapt to win in the end. More of Gates' intelligence memo can be read here.
We have created an interactive page to demonstrate engineers’ noble efforts against COVID-19 across the world. If you are working on a new technology or producing any equipment in the fight against COVID-19, please send your project to us to be featured.