A Simple Analogy for the COVID-19 Epidemic
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Imagine that you work at a local hospital in the Department of Important Paperwork. Your job is to process important paperwork for patients. This paperwork is so important that if you cannot process it within three business days of receiving it, the patient cannot fill their prescription for medication. The paperwork you process applies to patients who have been prescribed medication they need badly.
You typically have no problem processing all of the forms you receive in a single day. In fact, most days you finish all your work with time to spare (time you spend chatting with your five coworkers who also typically finish their workload with time to spare). Over the course of an entire year, you probably process about 1,500 forms…no sweat. You work about 225 days per year (excluding holidays and paid leave), so that averages out to around 6.6 forms processed per workday. Not bad! Now, not everyday has the same workload…some days you process 10 forms, other days maybe five, but at the end of the year you've usually done about 1,500 forms.
The most forms you've ever processed in a single day was 15 and you had to stay until midnight to make it happen. You're pretty sure that's the most any paperwork staffer has ever processed in a single-day and you tell the tale of your exploit like a war story.
This morning your supervisor sent you an email to let you know that the hospital is expecting you to process 50 additional forms this year. They are calling these new forms the CV-19 form and, like all the other forms, they must be processed within three business days if patients are to get their medicine on time.
Your initial reaction to this news is indifference…you process 1,500 of these forms every year, an additional 50 forms is just a drop in the bucket. Some quick math tells you this amounts to only an additional 0.22 forms per day to your regular workload. No problem.
The next email from your supervisor announces that all 50 of the CV-19 forms will be delivered to your desk next Monday and all of them, as usual, are due within three business days or patients will not be able to fill their prescriptions.
Now you're startled…all 50 forms in a single day?! The most forms you've ever processed in a day was 15 and it took a Herculean effort. The good news is there are five of you in your division and, together, you should be able to knock out these 50 forms with just a little overtime. You'll even offer to buy them pizza if they'll stay late to help you.
Upon calling for help, you realize each of your coworkers were delivered their own set of 50 CV-19 forms to process. Not good. What are you going to do?! Even if all of you worked for three days without sleep you likely couldn’t process all of these forms. Even worse, someone whose form doesn't get processed may not have access to their prescription, which could compromise their health.
Now you have an image in your mind of what an epidemic is like. It isn't that the volume of cases is so large in the grand scheme, it's that it happens so rapidly that it overwhelms your resources in the short-term and important work doesn't get done. Except, in the case of a viral epidemic, the work that doesn't get done isn't paperwork, it's the actual medical treatment of a person who is seriously (or even critically) ill.
You can translate this same scenario to your workplace.
Work in food service? How about an additional 100 customers? No big deal over the course of several days. But what if a bus load of 100 people shows up at your restaurant that seats only 50 people? Don't forget that because your restaurant serves good food, there are already 40 of your regular customers in the joint. Big problem. Too much at once…that is what an epidemic does…too much at once.
Does the seasonal flu infect and kill more people than COVID-19 will over the course of a long period of time? Probably. But does the seasonal flu do all that damage in only a single month? No, it doesn't. But COVID-19 might (because, unlike the seasonal flu, we have no built immunity to it). That's why measures like social distancing and the prohibition on large gatherings become important during an epidemic.
When public health officials talk about "flattening the curve" what they really mean, in simpler words, is "help us spread this workload out over a longer period of time so we can handle it without having to leave sick people untreated." It isn't that we can't handle a disease like COVID-19…it's that we can't handle everybody getting it at the same time.
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