We are not finished with COVID-19 yet, or more precisely, it is not finished with us. However, there are many lessons we have hopefully learned as we prepare for the next pandemic. I will outline how an understanding of exponential growth, thoughtful improvements in education and an increased public involvement in support of science can all be part of our societal strategy for an improved response next time this happens.

Colloquially, the term “exponential growth” is not quite used correctly; it is assumed to mean that something is growing extremely quickly. However, it is more accurately described by saying that the amount of growth is proportional to the amount that is already there. Therefore, if a threat grows exponentially, but it is just getting started, then it is growing very slowly. It grows uncontrollably only at exactly that moment where it begins to be a serious problem. Anything that grows exponentially, such as the spread of COVID-19, must be taken seriously when it is still invisible.

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Dr. Dan McQuillan

Education is the best way for the general population to believe this. As educators, we must do a better job of providing concrete examples where this happens. We must be better at communicating that we can avoid unpleasant surprises by widespread awareness of mathematical patterns. The value of having a mathematically literate population is not so that everyone can use mathematics every day, but rather that everyone can appreciate the predictions that mathematics provides. Public buy-in to the recommendations of our experts was insufficient during the past two years. This has been the biggest surprise for me personally, as someone who thought that the medical profession was mostly trusted for its successes.

One way to improve societal trust in science is to have more public involvement. If private companies produce our treatments, then these companies largely own the treatments. By promoting publicly funded research as publicly owned, we have a way to guarantee low cost, and to share information.

Improving our global understanding of how vaccines work would be a great goal. But even without that, an increased awareness of the work required to get material published in science would help a lot. To the extent that social aspects of science prevented us from having a better response to this pandemic, social improvements need to be considered and implemented. Improving the weakest parts of our education system is important for social change.

Now is a good time to remember that no virus cares about our fatigue, or our opinions. COVID-19, with largely unknown long-term effects, has an uncertain end date and still requires our careful attention. However, in many ways, this pandemic is giving us an opportunity to develop a meaningful strategy to prepare for a future that have could have analogous problems. We need to look forward and protect ourselves with the best tools we have, which include mathematical literacy, education and research.

Dr. Dan McQuillan is a Charles A. Dana Professor of mathematics at Norwich University.

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