If you were like me, you were glued to local newscasts recently as Hurricane Douglas approached the state.
Meteorologists collected and analyzed a mountain of information to create a model to forecast where Douglas was heading, when it would arrive, and the strength of its winds and rain.
That, in turn, allowed all of us — government, businesses, emergency personnel and families — to adequately prepare. We were lucky: The storm clipped us and the effects were minor.
The COVID-19 pandemic played out similarly after the first peak, and the parallels to Douglas do not stop there.
We used the best available science and data to forecast how the virus spreads, where it’s spreading, and how we can prevent exposure to this deadly disease. Government leaders, the community and individuals acted quickly upon scientists’ advice. And so we were prepared. We stocked up on food and supplies, and we changed our behavior to ensure our safety.
But there are essential differences between the two scenarios.
First, a hurricane and the crisis it creates passes relatively quickly. We have days to prepare and perhaps merely hours to endure its passage. A pandemic may last months to years, and its effects on public health and the economy could last even longer, with pandemic “fatigue” setting in and even disbelief about the dangers of the disease.
Second, if we ignore the best advice on how to prepare for a storm, we may put only ourselves in harm’s way. If we ignore advice on avoiding a virus, we not only put our own health in jeopardy, but we endanger the health of many others as well.
But here is the most significant difference between our two crisis scenarios.
Uncertainties are part of the game. In case of a storm, we understand the science reasonably well. Most of the prediction errors come from inadequate data. For COVID-19, we also have incomplete and inaccurate data sets and, at best, a partial understanding of the science. There is also the unpredictability of human behavior. The “cone of uncertainty” for the progression of a pandemic can be broad indeed.
This is all bad news, but there is a silver lining. In a natural disaster, all we can do is weather the storm. We have no influence over the storm itself. During a pandemic, we can modify our activities to protect ourselves from the virus — wearing masks, social distancing, washing our hands frequently, and avoiding the “3Cs” of closed spaces, crowded places and close contact. This, in turn, short circuits the spread of the disease. In the early days of the pandemic, we in Hawaii did just that, with impressive results.
However, like Hurricane Douglas, the danger is not over until it’s over. The pandemic has yet to pass us by, rising to triple digits of daily confirmed cases in the last few days. But our understanding of COVID-19 science is getting better day by day. Our data sets are improving due to better testing and data gathering. This, in turn, increases our ability to better forecast where the viral “storm” is heading.
Despite the inevitable COVID-19 fatigue, we have to use all available information to modify our behavior to stall the pandemic. If we could “will away” a hurricane collectively, wouldn’t that be a no-brainer? We have the chance with COVID-19, minimizing both the acute and long-term effects by merely leading our lives responsibly.
István Szapudi is a faculty member at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and member in the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group (HiPAM), a volunteer think tank helping to confront the COVID-19 pandemic via use of data and models. The views expressed here are his own.