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There is a class of board games called “cooperative”, or “co-op” for short. In a co-op game, all players work together toward a common goal. All players win together or all lose together. One such game is Pandemic. You and other players act as the response team trying to contain and eradicate a set of four diseases as they spread across the globe. There is one way to win, but seemingly dozens of ways to lose. It’s a frustrating game because even if you and your buddies are skilled players and do everything “right”, even the slightest bad luck in the card draw can trigger a devastating loss.
The diseases in the game are represented by colored cubes. These cubes are placed on a map of the world to represent the presence of the infection in each major city. As you lose the game, the map is swallowed by cubes. For those interested in modeling, it’s (morbidly) fun to watch the cube diseases overwhelm the map printed on the Pandemic board. How many steps does it take for a disease to spread from, say, Los Angeles to Lagos to Delhi? As it turns out for the real-world application of this exercise: not many. And given that public health officials are now warning that “more aggressive, disruptive measures might be needed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus in the U.S.”, Americans who previously felt safe from the novel coronavirus may now be getting a little more anxious about it.
Heightened anxiety and concern for the health and safety of loved ones will drive people to seek out information about the infamous virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (COVID-19), especially now that it is expected to spread in the U.S. Luckily, there has been extensive reporting on the topic. A lot of information is out there already. And some of the reporting contains good news. For example, there has been swift action from many corners to develop diagnostics and vaccines (although we may be waiting at least a year for a vaccine to be available).
Not all the news is good, obviously. U.S. travel restrictions and quarantines have not been enough to contain the disease. It is expected to spread3. But misinformation about the disease can spread even more rapidly than the disease itself.
“Though we all deeply feel the imperative to protect ourselves and our families, we must be careful about the information we take in and how we act on that information.”
Misinformation can be dangerous, even deadly, in the context of healthcare. Though we all deeply feel the imperative to protect ourselves and our families, we must be careful about the information we take in and how we act on that information. Predictions of the chaos that a pandemic might engender are dire: people might loot pharmacies, abandon cities, or hack or discredit official websites. Health care workers might stop showing up for work, and people tasked with delivering essential supplies may be too afraid to do so. On a less severe scale, public functions may be postponed or canceled, and schools and daycare centers could be closed. These scenarios, from the minor inconveniences to the catastrophes, could all be exacerbated by misleading or false information. Already there are medical mask shortages, even though CDC officials do not recommend face masks for prevention of COVID-19.
The best course of action is to act on information from credible sources: the CDC, the WHO, your doctor. Follow common-sense measures like frequent hand-washing, covering your mouth with the inside of your elbow when you cough, and avoiding face-touching. Avoid travel to areas with known high concentrations of the disease unless absolutely necessary.
It might help to think of the disease cubes in Pandemic when thinking about COVID-19. Say one color of cubes—green—represents the disease. It’s important to quell the spread of green cubes via the common-sense measures listed above. Misinformation about COVID-19 can be thought of as another color cube, say purple. It is just as important to not let the purple cubes spread. We lose if either the green or purple cubes overwhelm the world map. But we win if we all work together to say informed, safe, and healthy.
 For the nerds in the audience who are thinking, “but that’s not true for co-ops with hidden betrayer elements!”… You are right. But go with this for the sake of the analogy.
 The math kind.
About the Author
Stephanie Entzminger, FSA, MAAA, is a Consulting Actuary with Axene Health Partners, LLC and is based in AHP’s Temecula, CA office.