COVID-19 and computation for policy

Johnson, Jeffrey; Denning, Peter; Delic, Kemal and Bromley, Jane (2020). COVID-19 and computation for policy. Ubiquity, 2020(October) pp. 1–14.



Governments across the world are formulating and implementing medical, social, economic and other policies to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and protect their citizens. Many governments claim that their policies follow the best available scientific advice. Much of that advice comes from computational modeling. Two of the main types of model are presented: the SIR (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered) model developed by Kermack and McKendrick in the 1920s and the more recent Agent Based Models. The SIR model gives a good intuition of how epidemics spread; including how mass vaccination can contain them. It is less useful than Agent Based Modeling for investigating the effects of policies such as social distancing, self-isolation, wearing facemasks, and test-trace-isolate.
Politicians and the public have been perplexed to observe the lack of consensus in the scientific community and there being no single 'best science' to follow. The outcome of computational models depends on the assumptions made and the data used. Different assumptions will lead to different computational outcomes, especially when the available data are so poor. This leads some commentators to argue that the models are wrong and dangerous. Some may be, but computational modeling is one of the few ways available to explore and try to understand the space of possible futures. This lack of certainty means that computational modeling must be seen as just one of many inputs into the political decision making process. Politicians must balance all the competing inputs and make timely decisions based on their conclusions---be they right or wrong. In the same way that democracy is the least worst form of government, computational modeling may be the least worst way of trying to understand the future for policy making.

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