ANALYSIS: Math, the Coronavirus, and the Savior

Kate Hannon Loop

I’ve written many articles on this blog about how math helps us see the incredible order and design God placed around us. Today’s post, though, focuses on how math also gives us sober reminders that sin has marred God’s perfect world, bringing suffering and death.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how math helps us explore diseases such as the coronavirus, and at how doing so can serve as a launching pad to discuss how desperately we all need the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Elementary and Above – Everywhere we turn lately, we encounter information on the coronavirus. Math helps us quantify what is happening in order to better respond. As an example, see the World Health Organization’s Situation Report – 37; it contains lots of numbers, such as that, as of February 26, 2020, China has had 78,191 confirmed cases with 2,718 deaths. Math can help us further explore data like this. For example, what percent of people who contracted the coronavirus in China have died so far (assuming, of course, these confirmed cases and death numbers are accurate)? To find that, we would use the formula Percent = Percentage ÷ Base. (Students may be used to seeing this formula written differently–use whatever method for finding percents they’ve been taught.) In other words, Percent = 2,718 ÷ 78,191, which is approximately 0.034761 or 3.4761%. In comparison, the World Health Organization’s January 2020 report cites 861 confirmed cases of avian influenza, with 455 deaths, for a percent of about 0.528455 or 52.8455%. That’s a much higher percent death rate, but a much lower number of confirmed cases.

Suggestion: Have your students calculate these percents themselves. You might also have your children look at the charts in the coronavirus report and point out how graphs can help us visualize data.

Junior High and Above – As the numbers in the first bullet point illustrate, the big concern with the coronavirus is its rapid growth. This provides an opportunity to explore exponential growth with your students. You see, the concern is that the spread of viruses like this will be exponential—after all, if 1 person gets sick and infects a certain number of people, and all those people then infect people, and so forth, the growth that might start out small can increase rapidly. Exponential growth can be described by the formula P = Piert, or ending population equals initial population times e (a special number called “Euler’s number” that starts 2.71828) raised to the rate multiplied by the time. The World Health Organization’s Situation Report – 37 says that globally there were 871 confirmed cases within the last 24 hours of the report date (February 26, 2020). This daily change represents a continuous growth rate of about 1.0797%. If this rate continues, then the number of people that will have the virus at a future time can be calculated by this formula: P = 81,109e0.01797t, where t is the time in days. (Note that we plugged in the cumulative cases for Pi even though some of those cases may now be recovering from it or no longer be infected, so students should realize that this is only an estimate for the growth.)

Suggestion: For pre-algebra or algebra students, have them plug in various values for t and see how, if the current growth rate continues, the number of infected patients would change over time. Point out that this doesn’t account for patients getting better or dying. Point out too that it is based on what happened just in the 24 hours before this report–we’d need to look at more data to see if this is a typical rate. Point out that seasonal changes, quarantines, improved treatment, precautionary measures, etc., would also affect the growth of the virus. In other words, talk about the limit of math in predicting what will happen; our predictions can be very wrong! Only God knows the future. Not only might our initial data be faulty or misrepresented due to what is available to us, but so might be the rate we’re using. In other words, the greater the value of time you plug into the model, the worse the model will be in predicting the actual number of infected people. This is important to keep in mind when reading stats quoted on various topics.

For upper-algebra students, have them calculate the formula we calculated themselves by using the formula P = Piert, with P as 81,109 (the total cumulative infected as of the report) and Pi as 80,238 (the total cumulative ineffective as of yesterday per the report—we found this by taking the 81,109 and subtracting the 871 cases reported in the last 24 hours), with a time (t) of 1, since we want time to be in days (and 24 hours is 1 day). Have them divide both sides by 80,238 and take the natural logarithm of both sides to find the value of r. They should get a rate of approximately 0.01797. You can also have them explore more of the potential errors in this model by looking up the world’s population and plugging it in for P in P = 81,109e0.01797t and solving for t. Point out that seasonal changes, quarantines, improved treatment, precautionary measures, people already infected becoming better, etc., would affect this.

As you show your students math in action with the coronavirus, talk with them about how math can help us describe what’s happening with various diseases, and use that information to determine risks and take measures to help. But as we do, we need to remember several key truths:

  • Suffering and death wasn’t part of God’s original creation. It entered the world because of sin. (Romans 5:12)
  • Our loving Creator entered into this fallen creation, suffered, and died, to rescue us from eternal death and bring us into a perfect world again. Jesus took the death penalty for sin. (John 3:16)
  • God is the One in charge. If we’re His children, we don’t need to fear, as our lives are in His hands. We will not go home to Heaven until He decides it’s time. (Isaiah 46:10; Psalm 31:15)
  • Ultimately, every person will die (unless Jesus returns first!) and face God. If we’re in Christ, we have nothing to fear in death, but if we’re not, the reality that death will come sooner or later should alert us to run to Christ, as after death comes judgement (Hebrews 9:27), and none of us will stand before a holy God on our own righteousness (Romans 3:23). Challenge students to make sure they’ve placed their trust personally in Jesus.
  • We need to be sharing Jesus with those around us. Diseases like the coronavirus remind us that we don’t know how long others have to hear the gospel. This article shares how in China, Christians are sharing, and watching God draw many to Himself. Challenge students that now’s the time to be sharing with the people God has divinely placed in their lives. This can be as simple as asking them what they think about the coronavirus…and if it did affect them, do they know what would happen to them if they die? They can then share how they know they have eternal life because Jesus died and rose again; He is the resurrection and the life, able to offer the eternal life He promised to those who believe in Him (John 11:25). (For more evangelism ideas and encouragement, check out LivingWaters.com.)
  • We need to humble ourselves and pray. When life is going well, it’s easy to think we’re in charge, but we’re not. The reality is that none of us ever really knows what the future holds. Let’s be on our knees, praying for those affected, for all the lost around us, for Christians facing this threat up close, for our leaders as they seek to handle this, and for God to strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.

Math in a fallen world often helps us record tragic events…but always remember we serve a God who knows everything, cared enough to die for us, and can carry us through all our trials.

Source: Christian Perspectives

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