Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic lockdown is turning into an anxious obsession with numbers.
It all began with the number eight. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 8 pm address to the nation. Ever since then, we seem to be surrounded by numbers. Whether it’s the 5 pm clapping in the balcony, or the 21-day lockdown, maintaining six feet distance with people or news tallies on the number of deaths, infections or active cases in this country or that — we have been clinging onto digits to make sense of the deadly outbreak.
The number 21
Let’s start in India. When PM Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown starting 25 March, the whole nation went into panic and grocery stores were close to being raided. Everyone was thinking about the same time-bound goal — “we have to stock up food for the next three weeks”.
Very quickly the number ‘21’ became sacred and the lockdown turned into a countdown towards a phase of normalcy. ‘Day one’ of lockdown, day two, day three and so on and so forth, were just some of the headlines peppered across news feeds.
Recently, the number ’21’ was under siege amid rumours that the lockdown may be extended. However, cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba was quick to debunk the rumours and restore faith in the number 21. For now, Indians are able to cling onto the time-bound goal but our grip may loosen when we hear more and more positive reports on how lockdowns are ‘flattening the curve’ and other coronavirus-hit countries like the US are extending ‘social distancing’ timelines.
Covid-19 in digits
If it’s not time-bound goals, it’s the lens of numerics through which news has been tracking the pandemic. The number of deaths, active cases and recoveries is a staple statistic in any news report today. Although these are supposed to give the reader context, it has reduced the world to merely three numerical columns. A perfect example is Carnegie Mellon University’s viral ‘Covid Visualiser’. It shows a turning red globe and clicking on any country will give you a real-time count of just three things — coronavirus deaths, active cases and recoveries. Even when we are told about a COVID-19 death, our minds are redirected to another set of numbers — the age bracket between 60 and 80 years, which is most at risk.
Using relative numbers to make sense of the pandemic becomes more apparent when comparing global healthcare systems in their fight against Covid-19. The first thing that comes to mind is a count of their arsenal — the number of testing kits, medical staff, protective gear, masks, hospital beds, etc.
On a more individual level, we all now know the importance of a six-feet distance. It’s a measurement that has even been implemented in grocery stores across the country, with some of them drawing circles outside their shops to manage queues.
A CNN report did a comprehensive analysis of why the chosen distance is six feet in particular. “Without a cough or a sneeze, if we exhale, the distance three to six feet from each other is called the breathing zone…So if you’re standing within three to six feet of me, you may well inhale some of what I exhale. And of course, if I have the virus, what I’m exhaling microscopically contains the virus,” said Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.
Amid the coronavirus panic and chaos, it’s understandable why we may cling onto numbers for a sense of certainty or absolutism. However, since this is a novel virus, most of our understanding is on the go and with scant reports about a vaccine, it’s too premature to be certain.
Views are personal.