BBC Contagion – The BBC Four Pandemic

“We don’t have many weapons in the fight against infectious disease, but maths is a powerful ally.” Hannah Fry

By Naomie Happi

In the past century alone, several epidemics have swept across the world. In 1918, The Spanish flu infected at least 500 million people, between the years of 2014 and 2016 Ebola wreaked havoc on the West African continent, with 28,600 reported cases and approximately 11,325 deaths and in one year alone the Swine Flu infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe. All of these epidemics mentioned above were inevitable and too often resulted in a catastrophic impact on the global world, but, what if there was a way in which we could predict how impactful the next pandemic would and could affect the world? Recent studies have discussed how Mathematics could be used to calculate the possible effects of any pandemic.

Two years ago, one of the biggest citizen experiments of all time took place in the UK. Renowned mathematician and author of “Hello World: How to be human in the age of the machine”, Hannah Fry and British-born physician and television presenter Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim together with a team of mathematicians, professors and researchers developed a mobile application that would provide them with compelling insights into human behaviour that would, later on, explain how a virus could potentially spread throughout the UK.

BBC Contagion: The BBC Four Pandemic 2018.

Part of being prepared for a pandemic is having mathematical models in place to provide pandemic researchers with sufficient information on how a virus could spread throughout any region. During this experiment, the fastest and most accurate method of collecting information needed by pandemic researchers was through a mobile application that was later on known as The Pandemic. This application recorded valuable information on the GPS movements and social contacts of an everyday citizen in the UK. The Pandemic was designed in a specific way that allowed the data research team to track the day to day movements of their volunteers. This information provided the data research team with a probability of how long it would take a ‘virus’ to potentially spread throughout the UK.

How did the experiment work? Approximately, 28 000 people, both men and women from the ages of 13 to 100, volunteered to be patients during the research. At the beginning of the experiment, the volunteers were all ‘virus-free’. The testing was controlled in the local town of Haslemere. Local citizens in the town downloaded the application and regularly recorded their day to day movements and social interactions. To test how long it would take for the virus to spread, one of the presenters, Hannah Fry visited the town as a patient carrying the ‘virus’ and went about her day to day life, running errands and visiting fellow citizens in the local town. Depending on the social contact she had with a person, each person she interacted with would become contagious and would then go on to spread the ‘virus’ further. Although the effects of this experiment were not disastrous and were based on a fabricated ‘virus’ the research did present pandemic researchers with information on two very important elements. Firstly, it showcased how rapidly any virus could spread through contact and secondly it allowed pandemic researchers to develop precautions that could help reduce the social impact of a future pandemic.

The BBC Four Pandemic research recorded that in just four months 800 thousand people in the UK would be infected by a ‘virus’ originating from Southern Asia and 2 per cent of those infected would potentially die. Although these numbers were based on algorithms and mathematical calculations of a nonexistent ‘virus’. The predictions made on the contagion could help us win the fight against COVID-19. It was suggested that the number of people infected during the experiment could have been reduced through social distancing and the regular washing of hands. Even though the BBC Four Pandemic was a prescient documentary carried out to provide pandemic researchers with accurate data information on the possible social impact of any pandemic, we should remember that these results are not guaranteed to be the outcome of this current pandemic. The below video from Hannah Fry demonstrates how the number of cases during COVID-19 could be reduced if people regularly wash their hands.

Spain has already started using Mathematics to fight against COVID-19. The Mathematical Action against Coronavirus was recently launched by the Spanish Mathematics Committee (CEMat), is an initiative oriented towards collecting the Committee’s analysis to help them better understand the problematical patterns of COVID 19 and possible solutions to help combat the virus. Tomorrow, 5 May, Benchmark initiative will be holding a webinar with Hannah Fry to discuss the role ethics and location data play in tracking the spread of COVID-19. Do you think it is possible to calculate the outcome of the pandemic using mathematics?

If we all worked together and observe safety precautions, then we could not only change the outcome of this pandemic, but we could also alter the course of our future. To once again enjoy each other’s company and witness upfront the smiles of our friends and family members.

Comment down below and let us know what you think the outcome of this pandemic could be.

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