Dr Vincent Marmarà PhD (Stir.)
When lecturing statistics at University, especially on the topic of ‘Normal distribution’, as a PhD graduate in Mathematical Epidemiology, I often tell my students, ’While everything remains normal, then for millions of different scenarios, the variables follow the normal distribution. However, if we are faced with a destructive infectious disease, most of these ‘norms’ are changed.’ And that is exactly the scenario that we are experiencing at the moment.
I would like to start with some facts regarding the disease. COVID-19 is a novel virus about which we have little knowledge. This is important information in itself as it makes any mathematical modelling to understand the future even more challenging. However, we can compare this disease with other viruses, which makes us aware of its sensitivity. We know that the incubation period of COVID-19 varies between 2 and 14 days in most cases, while for the 2009 H1N1 disease (known as the ‘swine flu’) it varied between 1 and 4 days. We know that the basic reproduction number (R0) for COVID-19 varies between 2.2 and 2.5, while for H1N1 it was around 1.5. From other research being carried out abroad, we know that the asymptomatic cases make up around 50-80% of the total cases. All these facts make us realise that this pandemic needs to be tackled differently from other infectious diseases.
The above numbers help us draw a picture of the current situation and, at the same time, help us understand the future. Let us first understand the scientific and facts that we already have. Making sense of the above numbers could potentially help us enough to set the right social distancing strategies. Particularly the effective reproduction ratio (Rt) helps us understand the current spread of the disease in our community. Thus it helps us understand (and test) different restrictive measures that need to be taken to control the disease. In return, these measures will affect the economy, the performance of businesses and their day-to-day operations.
The real impact of COVID-19 on our society is still underestimated. However, we can try to make more sense of the situation based on actual facts. Sometimes, we waste time trying to figure out what will happen next year, when we can actually set our future. For example, we realised that information technology is closer to us than most of us thought. We realised that most of us can work remotely without any issues. In return, we have become more efficient, we waste less time commuting, we have cleaner air, we spend more quality time with our family, plus other fundamental changes that we never thought about, due to our busy lifestyle. This is a perfect time to turn a crisis into an opportunity. It’s now or never. If we let this experience pass without making the necessary changes before things go back to ‘normal’, we will not reap the benefits of the current situation.
Obviously, not everything is plain sailing and it is important to understand the future based on the current facts. We know that there will be economic challenges, especially due to the major impact on the tourism sector — a sector that probably affects every one of us, directly or indirectly. Even though this sector might not be directly related to our job, its benefits are important to each and every one of us. Based on these facts, we need to plan our future. We cannot be romantic about the past, but we need to be realistic about the future. We know that the 20% of foreigners living in our country a couple of weeks ago might not be the same. However, we can try to diversify our working methods. We can be more efficient and cost-effective. We can try to envisage the new ‘norms’ and the future society’s perceptions. Let us all work together to set our new ‘norms’ based on the currently known facts. The new ‘norm’ can be better than the old ‘norm’.
Dr Vincent Marmara is a Lecturer at the University of Malta and Statistician by profession. He obtained his PhD in Mathematics (Statistics) in 2016 from Stirling University with the title ‘Prediction of infectious disease outbreaks based on limited information’. Furthermore, he is the course coordinator of the B.Sc.(Hons.) Business and IT at the University of Malta, FEMA.