Being Real at the time of Coronavirus – I

Image Source: Fierce Biotech

Numbers at the time of coronavirus pandemic are keeping us on our toes. Numbers do all the talking. They update us about the number of people that are affected, the number of people who are healed as well as the number of people who died because of the infection. The practice of mathematics and numbers teaches us several things about the pandemic. It manifests us the exponential growth of the pandemic and also assists us to calculate our moves to arrest the exponential rise and flatten the curve of the virus.

Our moves to beat the virus calculate the period of metabolism of the virus as well as the probability of us infecting the other as well as the time that will take for the other to catch the infection. If the gap between the transmission of the infection to its kicking in the person who receives it is very low, we know that the pandemic is growing rapidly. Luckily the pandemic that we are dealing with now does not show an acute growth like its cousin influenza but its growth rate is still a cause of our great concern. This is why the lockdown period has to be a long time to really make a difference to low Serial Index ( SI) or slow growth of the virus. Mathematical models do give us the best illustrations about the manner in which the virus is spreading across time and space. The fight against coronavirus is backed by jugglery of numbers without which humanity would have been simply groping in the dark.

There is wisdom flowing from mathematics that we need badly to consolidate our response to this global pandemic. We seem to be looking for what Henri Bergson would call numbering numbers that stood for the magnitude of the intensification of forces. There are several numbers that are intensifying the pandemic. This complex number crunching is carving the path that we need to take to stay ahead of covid-19 and beat the lethal virus. To us ordinary mortals it offers a sense about where we stand vis-à-vis the spread of infection. We have to follow this sense that these numbers are offering us to stay away from this lethal virus. They have a way of disciplining us. These numbers have both a sense and a logic that indicates what we have to do to battle the virus.

The numbers seem to have inverted the adage of Protagoras which said ‘man is the measure of all things’. Today we are facing a displacement of humanity. It is almost allied to the Copernican revolution that displaced the locus of humanity in the universe. We are once again facing a de-anthropocentric moment of humanity as ‘the virus has become of the measure of all things.’ We are living what may be called suspended life that has brought about the absurdity of not being able to plan a tomorrow without calculating the move of the lethal virus. We are simply catching up on the arithmetic of the virus.

Pythagoras is back. The virus has several numbers that describe its dynamism. It is living out its algorithm. Our numeric sense decodes it for us. It has changed our imagination of life. But we can also be caught into a dark tunnel because of this numeric sense that we all have. Thus, for instance, we can think that the lockdown can set the timeline of the virus. To a large extent, lockdown can slow down the transmission of the virus. The timeline of the virus is set by the viral transmission and lockdowns are simply clever conjectures that attempt to catch up with the virus. This catching up is possible because the virus has a number that gives us the time it takes for its metabolism.

The transmission of the virus shows an exponential growth and puts limits on our accuracy and exactness of our ability to lock its metabolism under a lockdown. The flattening of the curve is not necessarily the flattening of the virus. We simply think that the spread of the virus is continuous. It appears continuous but in fact, it is discrete. This is why the permutations of its spreading ability can only be calculated using probability functions. This means numbers and mathematics that we think as pure abstractions and free of ideology is not really true. Numbers are simply complex dynamic signs that measure change over time and place. This is why they need interpretations. Interpretations are not free from ideology.

In his new book written about human distress triggered by covid-19, and titled Pandemic , Slavoj Zizek points out that statistics are ideological. He did not develop this insight but it set me thinking. We always think numbers are pure and not contaminated by ideology. But a simple reflection on the democratic elections reveals that numbers can carry our ideologies. Besides, we can manipulate and doctor several statistics or numerical findings. These sensitizations of numbers cannot be free from ideology or vested interests. This is why China could suppress numerical and other information about SARS-CoV2.

Why point the accusing figure to China alone. The fact that we are not testing enough certainly keeps a number of people out of reported cases of COVID-19. This means we may be seriously consuming only doctored numbers. Why do we need to play with these numbers? Maybe to hide the inadequacy of our medical infrastructure or to avoid spreading panic among our people or simply to suit our political ideologies we are playing this hide and seek game.

We may simply wish to have a good report card about our handling of the disaster of coronavirus. This is why maybe we are heartlessly calculating our electoral gains by leaving several of our brethren to die of this lethal virus. We may not be able to view this cruelly because we see this number thrown at us through our ideology. These numbers that are flashing at us are products of ideology but paradoxically we cannot decipher it because of our ideology that thinks that numbers are innocent , pure, and free from all biases. It is time that we throw the scales from our eyes and come to terms with the ideology that filters our vision of numbers. Let’s face the ideological laden-ness of numbers.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao