Chaos Theory and the importance of social distancing during the pandemic

Hyperaxion May 1, 2020

Researchers in Brazil concluded that the best way to fight the spread of the disease is by combining a high level of social distancing and testing.

An analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic carried out by researchers at the University of the State of Santa Catarina (Udesc), in Brazil, provided important information about the prevention strategies that can be used against the new coronavirus. The study was based on Chaos Theory and was published in the scientific journal Chaos on Tuesday (28).

Chaos Theory and the importance of social distancing during the pandemic
(Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons).

Chaos Theory is a branch of mathematics that studies nonlinear dynamic systems, that is, sets in which the idea of “cause and effect” is not applied directly. This idea challenges the perception proposed by physicist Isaac Newton that a particular action always results in a reaction with the same intensity. Chaos Theory proposes that an “action” does not necessarily result in a “reaction” that can be predicted, as many factors interfere with the unfolding of such “action”.

Although it is an extremely simple way of explaining Chaos Theory, the so-called “Butterfly Effect” is intended to exemplify how these dynamic systems work: small actions can result in reactions very different from those predicted. And, as the mathematician Marcelo Viana said in an interview in 2015, it is precisely this unpredictability of complex sets that the theory explains.

It may seem contradictory, but understanding Chaos Theory allows mathematicians to organize the systems studied. This is because, even though they are unpredictable because they are affected by several other factors, “reactions” follow the principles of natural sciences, such as physics, biology, and chemistry.

This knowledge helps scientists to “restrict” the countless and unpredictable possibilities resulting from a given action, making its consequences a little more… predictable. And that is exactly why Chaos Theory is fundamental for the understanding of events like pandemics.

The new study

Considering the Chaos Theory, we know that the possibilities for the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are numerous. However, considering what is known so far about Sars-CoV-2, the Udesc team was able to restrict the variables and find a system in which the consequences of the pandemic were less harmful.

The cumulative number of confirmed infected cases of COVID-19 as a function of time for nine countries, excluding days with fewer than 100 infected. The black continuous curves represent a power law regression and the inset shows the same quantity is plotted in logarithm scale.
The cumulative number of confirmed infected cases of COVID-19 as a function of time for nine countries, excluding days with fewer than 100 infected. The black continuous curves represent a power law regression and the inset shows the same quantity is plotted in logarithm scale. (Credit: Cesar Manchein)

For this, they used a technique called numerical modeling, which takes advantage of the power of computing to solve a set of differential equations. This made it possible to compare scenarios in which measures of social distancing had been implemented or not.

“Our results essentially show that an efficient strategy to avoid the increase of the number of infected individuals by coronavirus combines two actions: Keep to a high level of social distance and implement a significant number of tests to identify and isolate asymptomatic individuals,” said Rafael da Silva, study co-author, in a statement.

The study was based on official data released until March 27 in 9 countries: Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain and the United States. According to them, mathematically, softer quarantine measures are inefficient when it comes to flattening the infection curve.

The Udesc team plans to continue implementing the model as the pandemic develops. “Physics and chaos theory researchers can have a fundamental role in the battle against the coronavirus,” noted Cesar Manchein, the article’s lead author. “From the theoretical point of view, researchers can use their knowledge and experience to study the time and territorial evolution of the disease.”

Related topics:

Chaos Theory

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