On math, COVID-19, and hope | Inquirer Opinion
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Young Blood

On math, COVID-19, and hope

One thing this pandemic has taught me, a math major tired of looking at math without numbers, is that math is necessary. Of course, it is also boring, it is exhausting, it is tedious, it is difficult — but one can’t deny how important it is.

We are currently governed by numbers; the most pressing questions of the day are expressible as a math problem. For example: Given the current rate of vaccination and the growth rate of our population, how long will it take to achieve herd immunity?

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Without context, this reads like a difficult problem your terror math professor would give you in one of your exams. But the answer to this question is needed if we want to know when everything would be able to go back to normal.

Especially now, as education has shifted to the online space, learning frivolous math concepts that seem to have very little application in real life (like logarithms, sines, parabolas, among others) appears to highlight the disconnect between our learning space and the real world outside it. We say, “The world seems to be burning, and yet I sit here still learning how to add polynomials.”

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Let me assure you that everyone thinks that; in fact, as a third-year math major, I also think that all the time. But learning math, and paying attention in math class, gives us two important edges during these times. First, it teaches us how to be numerically literate. And second, it teaches us how to be problem solvers.

What does it mean to be numerically literate? It means looking at our COVID-19 cases chart, seeing that it’s rising as time goes by, and not saying “we have defeated the virus.” It means that seeing the current rate of vaccinations, we’d realize that achieving herd immunity would take more than 12 years. It means seeing that the few deaths attributed to vaccines is not because of the vaccines, but because of preexisting conditions surrounding the cases.

Being numerically literate means understanding that numbers have meaning. To decode this meaning, we need to think about what this number represents. For example, the phrase “the highest rolling 7-day average of COVID-19 cases since August 2020” should translate, in our numerically literate brains, to “hot dang, we should take more precautions and stay at home if we can.”

I find that a lot of the people who advocate for the removal of calculus and algebra in our curriculum are the ones who look at our data and say that we are doing an excellent job. It is a self-contradicting statement—you cannot advocate against the thing that would have helped you the most at this time.

Second, it is quite literal that teaching sound math makes us become better problem solvers. You may not be able to use a logarithm in your daily life, but the skills you need in solving those types of problems are very transferable.

For instance, good problem-solving involves knowing what you want — this is the “What is asked?” problem-solving question we were taught back in Grade 1 or 2. Then you lay out all of the facts beforehand — the “What are given?” Then you know what actions to commit to make that solution happen — the “What are the operations needed?” If you cannot solve it now, then try another approach, rework what you have and go at it again with a fresh perspective.

In our COVID-19 paradigm, because we have claimed that the crisis can essentially be written as a series of math problems, we can develop an approach using the framework at hand. For example, the problem of knowing our diagnosis freely, regardless of socioeconomic background, can be operationalized through a mass testing program — this is asked, given, operation. Or if you are thinking how you’re going to go out to buy essential goods without sacrificing your safety and budget —again: asked, given, operation.

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Plus, contrary to popular belief, you do not always need to come up with novel solutions every time. If we have found a solution that works, we should try to implement it and reappropriate it to our context. (Shout out to my computer science friends who have experienced copy-pasting a series of codes.) It is not different here—we should be on the lookout for the best practices from other governments and tweak them to the Filipino context. Best practices are not copyrighted, and we should have a united front against COVID-19 globally.

Of course, math can only teach us so much. It cannot teach us how to be compassionate to one another. It cannot teach us how to stand up for what is right. It cannot teach us empathy and sympathy. Math is relentless and unforgiving. It does not budge or make itself easier to see. The same is true with our approach to this pandemic.

The pandemic is relentless and unforgiving. It does not discriminate, or make itself easier to solve. But, like good math students, we should persevere. When we learn math now, let us think of how numbers have shaped our current worldview. Let us think that, to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we should learn how to grapple with the information we have. Truly, math is necessary now more than ever.

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Jim Ralphealo Mijares, 21, is a junior at Ateneo de Manila University, taking up both mathematics and education. He is currently in Dumaguete.

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