WAR ON CORONAVIRUS

Information key in beating virus

Only by knowing what is happening (information by testing) the virus can be halted.

In Summary

• So how can countries control and end the spread of the virus when information is not available?

• Social distancing is an answer, but it is virtually impossible in the poorer sections of a country and its refugee camps to enforce it. Enforcing is not an answer either because it will cause resentment.

A lab technician testing for Covid-19
A lab technician testing for Covid-19
Image: COURTESY

Information is key to resolving the Covid-19 crisis. One of the key issues is to know who has been infected through testing.

Kits are available, sometimes in their tens of thousands in a particular country then testing itself can take up to a few days.

President Donald  Trump could not, or refused to, answer the question of how many test kits are needed in the US. Indeed, in poor countries, the number of test kits available might only be in the low thousands or even less.

 

So how can countries control and end the spread of the virus when information is not available?

There is a relatively overlooked methodology in science called cybernetics.  It insists to control a situation, all relevant information must be obtained and used. It is known as the law of requisite variety.

Cybernetics works by understanding the first rule: A situation can only be controlled if the variety of the controller matches the variety of the situation to be controlled. One variety is the unpredictability of the virus within a community.

The other variables can be understood as the capacity of a system (for instance a country’s government, society and citizens) to respond to risk (the virus). This ‘controlling’ variety has to be assembled.

All societies generate tremendous variety such as human variety, environmental variety, social variety, regulatory variety.

They change all the time and cannot be controlled, but they can be steered by real-time information so they can learn and adapt the same way.

This confirms that only by knowing what is happening (information by testing) the virus can be halted.

Social distancing is an answer, but it is virtually impossible in the poorer sections of a country and its refugee camps to enforce it. Enforcing is not an answer either because it will cause resentment.

Teaching the populace to understand that sneezing or coughing can transmit the virus is another variety needed. Educate people to behave cautiously. And provide cheap and effective face masks, that must be washed in soap and water after use.

 

The governmental and medical task force can be formed to focus on acquiring sufficient requisite variety.

Currently, no such control system has been created, neither in China nor in the West, so illogical, draconian restrictions will inevitably cause more damage later.

The few places it has been done was in South Korea and Taiwan, and in a small Italian town named Vo, where everyone was tested, eradicating the virus threat in no time.

But testing everyone is impossible. Even testing 1,000 people out of a million, or 0.1 per cent will deliver only a part of the needed information to reduce risks.

However, it will be a good start. Selecting 1 ppm [parts per million] of, for instance, the total Kenyan population of about 49 million means 49, 000 tests. Even that is too high and expensive.

Our suggestion is twofold. First, use the technique of stratified random sampling with a sample size of 10,000 to test a part of the population.

The test can be done in those areas, mainly urban, where people are more concentrated.

One needs, normally, a sample frame or list of people to select randomly but normally does not exist – richer countries use census data.

But one can still go into an area and test one person every tenth house in every district.

Certainly, the National Office of Statistics should work with the National Health Service to identify the sample and carry out the test.

Second, there is another huge issue, maybe even more important than knowing who is infected and where to focus resources.

This is that most poor people living in urban informal settlements only source of income is through working. Cut off their mobility through curfews and they starve.

The solution, as we argued elsewhere, is not food distribution, which is necessarily cumbersome, but the direct transfer of cash in the form of a basic income to all individuals living in a poor area – estimated at 10 million in Kenya for example.


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