How will India handle nCOVID-19?

Photo by Raghu Nayyar on Unsplash

In light of recent events, you may have seen a video clip of Bill Gates’ 2015 Ted Talk. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.” It seems that what he said may, in fact, become true in the foreseeable future.

As soon as news of the Coronavirus took the internet by storm in January, my first thought was how a country like India would handle a potential epidemic. How many of those 10 million will come from here?

Just by the sheer size of our population, challenges such as teaching disease prevention, controlling epidemics, and even implementing simple health measures have always been specifically tough for us. In the late 90s, India fell behind during the international effort to eradicate polio; it was the last country to abolish the virus due to the immense hindrances such as the topography, low literacy rates, and the inability to distribute the vaccines without plentiful help from NGOs.

Of course with the novel Coronavirus, the circumstance is different, but the difficulty in handling the virus back then is somewhat of a reflection of how we might handle the situation today.

Let’s turn back the clock a few weeks — on January 30th, the nation’s ‘patient zero’ arrived in Kerala testing positive for the virus, however, no mass panic was sparked even after the number infected grew to three. Luckily for us, the carriers didn’t transmit any more and recovered within a couple of weeks. Come March, reports start coming out that the virus is not only back, but has already spread

Now, from Kerala across Telangana to Maharashtra, in Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi NCR, many are being quarantined in their homes as more cases of COVID-19 are confirmed.

As more news pours out, many vital questions are rising:

  • How fast is it spreading?

The problem right now is that we just don’t have the right amount of information to tell exactly. But there are a lot of things we can say right now.

First and foremost, let’s understand the current status of the Coronavirus. Let’s take a look at how nCOVID-19 has grown since the first case.

Created using data from The Hindu and Worldometers Official

Now 121 carriers may not seem like such an alarming number, but it is rather worrisome. Let me explain why — You’re probably familiar with exponential growth, which has a dependent quantity that will increase at a higher rate with respect to the amount of an independent quantity such as time. Such growth occurs in the natural world with quantities such as population growth, interest rates, and even collisions between the uranium nuclei and neutrons in a nuclear bomb. When you look above, it is quite similar to a normal exponential curve. In fact, by comparing the data to a real theoretical exponential graph, we can find something called a correlation coefficient. On a scale of 0 to 1 for a positive slope like ours, we can find just how well the data matches an ideal curve. I found a correlation coefficient of 0.85; this means that the trend India is facing is fairly close to an uncontained epidemic. With the virus still being relatively new and the proper measures still being put in place, the high number makes sense.

More of the 0.15 difference is likely caused by errors in reporting the true number of carriers than an incidental mismatch against an exponential curve. India is going to struggle in reporting the true amount of people infected. We were already caught off-guard when on March 4th, the number infected was found to be significantly more than what we expected. It’s reasonable to assume that there are a number of Indians who have the virus but have not reported it.

Another way to understand the growth is by finding the factor with which the virus grows every day. I used the following formula:

After using the formula for the cases from March 1st to March 15th, when the virus began to spread, I was returned a value of 0.273.

This means that, on average, the population infected will be 27.3% more as compared to the day before.

This is a really significant number. Humans typically can’t conceptualize the nature of exponential growth due to the massive difference in the rate of change with different time frames. In order to get a grasp of the growth we are looking at, think about this: Just in 10 days (from March 15th), the number infected will rise to about 1,250. In an additional 10 days, the number reaches 13,989. A month from March 15th, the number will reach a whopping 156,340.

We know that with the way the virus is spreading right now, the rate of change is very likely going to increase. We can’t be sure, though because there are innumerable uncontrolled variables with each case such as when it’s identified and how it’s handled by authorities. Moreover, most of what we know about the virus is based on real cases rather than controlled testing.

In the period between me writing this post and you reading it, updates have likely come out on the population infected. New data will change the correlation coefficient and the compounded growth rate, meaning that the number infected in the future can be very different than what was expected the day before.

Right now, India is in the latter part of the containment phase and can go in any direction. While the authorities have been proactive in doing so, we must isolate those who are infected, and we must identify carriers before further spread. If we can’t, we will reach exactly what Bill Gates predicted 5 years ago. At that point, our only option will be forced isolation, the shutdown of all social spaces, and complete disruption to national activity.

My next post will cover the mathematical model around what needs to be done to completely suppress this virus. In the meanwhile, “Quarantine On!”


Student in Delhi NCR. Using math to better understand the events of the large blue marble we stand on.

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