Pandemics are like Playing Cards


All week I’ve had conversations with people from across the U.S. and from around the world who still don’t understand how epidemics work.

It’s not at all intuitive. I get that. Three weeks ago I posted this great video to help build that intuition. Daily updated from Dr. John Campbell help as well. Today let’s try making it simple. Today let me explain the pandemic as a card game.

Let’s say you work at a bar or pub or restaurant. It’s a popular place. Each day there are 200 customers. As the customers walk in, they get handed a playing card. The cards come from one of four decks: three with blue backs and one with a red back.

Everyone with a blue backed card is fine. Maybe an odd cough. Maybe an extra headache. But nothing serious. Everyone with a 2 through 6 from the red deck is OK. They end the night with a sore throat. A few days with a cough. A low-grade fever.

Everyone with a 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A from the red deck isn’t so lucky. They all come down with flu-like symptoms. Body aches. A deep, hacking cough. High fevers. The worst flu they’ve ever had. But it’s not flu, it’s worse.

The unlucky customers with a 10, J, Q, K, A all end up in the hospital over the next few days. The customers with J, Q, K, A all need a respirator, or they die. For now the hospitals have plenty of beds and plenty of respirators, but it’s still touch and go whether they die. A few of the people with Aces die.

If this happened one night last year at your bar, pub, or restaurant, it would make your local news. If it happened three nights straight, the authorities would likely (and hopefully) shut down your establishment for the safety of the public.

The pandemic is like playing the game every day, except as the infection rate rises, the number of decks shrink. Today it was four decks: three blue and one red. Next week it’s just three decks: two blue and one red. A week later, it’s not two decks, just one, all red.

By that time all the hospital beds are full. So by then if your customer gets handed a face card, they die.

But it is worse than that, as this analogy doesn’t take into account the fact that anyone carrying a red card can infect other people. To extend the analogy, we’d have to be handing out cards on every bus, in every school, in every office, every day. And at the same time everyone who has a red card is handing out their own cards too, to everyone they meet, to everyone they walk past on the street.

How long should the authorities let that game play out?

The sooner those authorities stop the game, the more lives get saved. Right now, there are somewhere between 30 million and 300 million lives that can be saved. Do nothing, and that many people will die in 2020.

The pandemic is real. It is a global crisis that will soon be killing people everywhere. The sooner everyone understands that, the more lives we can save by staying at home, opting out of the game.

By "Luni"


HardcoverThe Next StepThe Next StepThe Next StepThe Next Step The Next StepThe Next StepThe Next Step



Recent blog posts