What does chess have in common with COVID?
This is not the beginning of a joke. It’s a serious question, and you know the answer, if you know the old Persian legend of what happened when the inventor of chess brought the game to his king. The story goes, that the king was absolutely smitten by the game. Such an elegant and sophisticated game he thought, and offered the inventor anything he would want in exchange for the game.
The power of math
The inventor, understanding math better than the king, said to him:
“My King! Give me a grain of rice for the first square on the chessboard, then double that on the second square, and then double it again on the the third square and so on, until all the squares have their allotment of grain. Then give me all the grain, that is all I ask.”
The King agreed to the modest proposal, and it wasn’t when it doubled from 16 to 32 grains, or indeed when it doubled from 1024 grains to 2048 grains he got worried. But by the 64th square, after having doubled and doubled and doubled, time after time again he owed the inventor eighteen quintillion grains (that’s a one followed by eighteen zeros, or 1.000.000.000.000.000.000)
Cases in the Philippines
This is the spread of COVID19 in the Philippines. It doubles every few days. That’s why we have gone from a few cases to alarming numbers, in what seems just a blink of an eye. Unfortunately it also means we are going to see more and more doublings, until such a point in time when it cannot double anymore, because there are not enough new people to infect.
As time goes on, more and more of us will get COVID19, and if we do not die of it, we emerge on the other side with natural immunity. So does this mean, that we are all destined to get COVID? No, not if we take measures. The disease only rages for a few short weeks, at the end of which – to put it brutally bluntly – you are either dead or immune. Hypothetically, if we could all avoid being in touch with all other people, then the virus would wipe itself out in a few weeks. Anyone left alive would be immune. That’s not how life works though.
We need to take of our sick and old, and the nation needs food. Farmers and fishermen must provide for us all, and we need to move goods and supplies, but with all of this, we also move and spread the virus. We are not defenceless however. While we cannot outwit the virus outright, in the long game of attrition we can win. If we can keep the speed of contagion slow, our brave aid providers, doctors and nurses fighting across our island nation stand a chance of keeping up with the virus, until we beat it.
Business as usual
This is what happens if we continue as usual. The balls represent people moving around and infecting each other. Red people are infected, and blue people are not infected yet. When people have been ill and recover with immunity, they become green. They are now safe and cannot get reinfected. Run the simulation, see what happens.
If we lock down the barangays, stay at home, keep 2m physical distance from each other when we need to go out for essential duties, and we manage to immobilize 75% of us, it becomes a different picture.
Run the simulation. See how long it takes for us to get ill, giving health authorities much better time to deal with the crisis.
But we can and must do better. See what happens if we are succesful in immobilizing 90% of us. We beat this virus. Now you understand how strict measures we have to put in place for our lockdowns to actually protect our weak and older citizens.
As a people we pinoys would rather be active and productive. It is in our nature to be mobile and support each other through physical presence in these difficult times. But we cannot and we must not move.
Stay put, we will all get through this. There will be a day tomorrow too, and we shall overcome this.
This article and the simulations are inspired by an original article from The Washington Post.
The code for the simulator is based on Jake Albaugh’s work.
More about COVID-19
Personal account: Stranded under COVID quarantine
“I worry about loved ones that I won’t be able to see for a long time. I’ve taken freedom of movement for granted my whole life and now this privilege has gone, it leaves me shaky and unsure of my future.”
From our intern Emma Levy, Read her personal blow-by-blow COVID19 account.
We are trying to raise funds to provide our local community with sacks of rice, and we urgently beg for your help. Many former international volunteers are now donating. If we can get food to people, they stand a chance of staying home. If they can stay at home, they can take care of their elders and will not bring home the lethal virus.
What the virus means for our work and volunteers
To protect as many people as possible from the Covid19 pandemic, and with heavy hearts, we said farewell and evacuated our incredible volunteers on the 16th of March. Regular scientific operations are suspended until further notice, and the skeleton staff now work to combat COVID through information campaigns and fundraising.