The Importance Of Maths In The Covid-19 Pandemic

Maths has been in the spotlight during the last few weeks as the Covid-19 pandemic has spread across the world with devastating consequences.   Open up a news website and you will be presented with graphs and charts like never before.  Exponential growth is becoming famous as cases double and a single carrier can lead to huge chains of infection.  

When the UK government decided to drastically increase isolation measures it was in response to research by scientists at Imperial College London, headed up by Professor Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist.  Their mathematical modelling work warned that the UK would suffer 500,000 deaths if stronger action wasn’t taken, leading to the government decision to effectively shut down Britain, closing schools, restaurants, cafés and non essential shops.  Britain has been locked down on the basis of mathematical advice, saving lives and preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed.  

Lots of comparisons are being made between the current crisis and the Second World War.  It is interesting to note that mathematics has played a big role in both situations.  In World War Two code breakers led by mathematician Alan Turing helped shorten the war by around two years, and now mathematics will be used to determine when lock down measures can be lifted.  

Once things return to normal, maths teachers will be able to talk about the role which maths played in the current crisis, highlighting how important mathematical modelling is to government decisions.  They will also be able to talk about the engineers who used mathematics to design new breathing equipment such as the Mercedes F1 engineers who have stopped designing racing cars and started working on technology to help the Covid-19 outbreak.  As nurses and doctors calculate medicine doses, they need mathematics as they risk their lives on the front line – mathematics is helping in every area of this crisis.  And as teachers talk to their pupils, they will need to be mindful that some pupils will have suffered personally from the crisis, both from a prolonged period of isolation and also potentially from losing loved ones or having parents who are struggling financially.  

In the meantime, teachers are busy working to support their pupils through this pandemic, either by teaching the children of key workers or by providing online teaching support from home.   In the future, when lockdown measures are lifted and schools reopen, maths teachers will play a crucial role in rebuilding the confidence of their pupils and helping them to achieve their ambitions.  The year 2020 will be an interesting year to start out as a new teacher, but there will also be extra opportunities to make a difference in the education of pupils who have had their schooling interrupted.   

This blog post was written in April 2020.

Further Reading:
Epidemic Emergency – the maths behind the spread of Ebola  
Mercedes F1 to make breathing aid