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Role of mathematical and statistical modelling in pandemic management

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Prof. Saurav Chatterjee, winner of the Infosys Prize 2020 in the field of Mathematical Sciences in an interaction with Express Healthcare talks about the role of mathematical and statistical modelling in pandemic management

How mathematics helped in answering crucial COVID-19 questions/vaccination management?

Mathematics and related disciplines can provide some guidelines to policymakers about how to distribute vaccines, which groups should get them first, who are more susceptible and how should lockdowns and other COVID-management strategies be properly implemented. That said, however, one should remember that mathematical models are only approximations to the real situation, and guidelines provided by the models can go wrong. In that case, policies should be modified. Still, it is better to have some guidelines than nothing at all.

How is mathematical and statistical modelling playing a role during times of a pandemic?

Mathematical and statistical modelling have guided policymakers in various nations to the proper strategies for implementing lockdowns, distributing vaccines, and behind the scenes, managing healthcare facilities and hospitals. The guidance has not always been perfect, because COVID is a new disease with many unknowns, but I believe that things would have been much worse otherwise.

How imperative is mathematical predictions and probabilities in problem solving during the pandemic?

Mathematical models can help to some extent. Even if they help in reducing deaths by, let’s say, 10 percent, that is a lot. As a related example, consider a country whose economic policies are guided by expert economists versus a country whose economic policies are fashioned by a dictator. Both countries can run into economic problems, but the first country is likely to suffer less and recover quicker. The same is true for a pandemic like COVID. If policies are designed by experts, they are likely to cause less suffering and deaths than if they are designed or dictated by non-experts.

Your thoughts on the importance of mathematics in the development of science and technology?

Of course, everyone knows that mathematics is the foundation of all branches of science and technology. It is an indispensable tool; nothing can be done without mathematics. But it also true that the mathematics that scientists use in their “daily research” is “old math”, and not the mathematics that is at the centre of current mathematical research. The mathematics that is used, for instance, in COVID research, was developed more than 80 years ago, and is currently available for ready implementation in software packages. Current mathematics will probably find its uses in science and technology perhaps 80 years from now

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