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You/We/Us Inside the Coronavirus System

Paul Fishwick
Mar 22 · 4 min read
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To better understand the coronavirus, we need to investigate the concept of system. Are we living in The Matrix or in a simulation? Sort of. We are inside of a large interconnected system known as Earth, which resides inside another system known as the solar system, inside of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Yes, this sounds a bit like the Gaia Hypothesis put forward by James Lovelock. The dictionary defines Gaia as follows:

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From the Oxford English Dictionary

The only thing missing here is a mentioning of “system.” And, yet, Lovelock had it right. Everything is interconnected, and the coronavirus experience confirms this every day.

I woke up this morning to two interesting news articles.

Consider Global Warming. The article was This Pandemic Might Actually Help Us Tackle Climate Change. This is because, during the coronavirus lockdown, we are less likely to use our cars. Not using our cars reduces fossil fuel CO2 emissions, which helps the climate change situation.

Or consider Beans. Yes, you heard that right. It is a Boom Time for the Bean Industry. Consumers are stocking up on anything that has staying power — that can be easily preserved or kept fresh. Beans? Sure, join a club and get beans, on a regular basis, on your door step. Many have drawn parallels of this crisis with World War II in terms of rationing. My father told me yesterday that he had to endure a constant diet of jam on bread while he was in the Isle of Man, away from, but still within sight of, the bombing of Liverpool to the east.

The Global Warming and Beans article point to a more general phenomenon: everything is connected. I mentioned the word “system” earlier. I have been studying models of systems since grad school, and so I have devoted a large portion of my working life exploring how models are presented and represented. Thinking “everything is connected” lies at the heart of systems thinking.

Here is a definition of systems thinking from Learning for Sustainability:

“Systems thinking is an approach to integration that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated from the system’s environment or other parts of the system. Standing in contrast to positivist and reductionist thinking, systems thinking sets out to view systems in a holistic manner.”

I have challenge for you. It can also be considered a game about a very serious subject. It is entirely optional but will get you doing systems thinking. Sit in any room in your house. Look around at all of the objects, include the one in which you are seated and ask yourself the question “How is this related to the coronavirus?”

It is a worthwhile exercise when you are not de-stressing. It turns out that most objects do have something to do with this virus. There are causal paths creating a spider web of objects. The coronavirus connects to everything.

When scientists and engineers do systems modeling, they ask this same kind of question: what are the ramifications of the causal agent (coronavirus) and other things? The modeling goes deep down the rabbit hole. Because there are so many ways to model and so many levels of abstraction:

  • do we model a single virus’ action with a living cell?
  • do we model the geometry (shape) of the virus and its cellular interaction?
  • do we model the effects of the coronavirus on key institutions: schools, state and federal governments, micro/small/large businesses?
  • do we model the population dynamics?
  • do we model how the virus affects foods or food services?
  • do we model the psychological effect of keeping our distance from other people?
  • do we model the economic impacts of supply chains?

These are just a small number of possibilities. Models are frequently associated with scale in spacetime. So, the model of the single virus will look and act very differently from a human population model.

Here is a model, or perhaps a collection of models, from researchers:

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Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-Cov2)

The following figure maps, in further refinement, to a compartmental model. The compartmental model diagram is sub-modeled as ordinary differential equations (the standard for modeling much of nature). This is referred to as a SIR model for epidemiology.

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There is a ton of modeling work going on right now and much of it can get complicated, depending on the level of validity needed. If you search for something as simple as “coronavirus model” (use the quotes in the search bar), you’ll find numerous hits.

Rather than showing you other models, I’d like to re-emphasize how important the study of systems (systems theory, systems science, and systems engineering) is for humanity right now. If you study something in isolation, you may get some useful results, but you’ll also be missing the bigger picture. We need to learn to collaborate, much more than we have, across disciplines. The disciplines are all cross-connected in the real world.

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