The Italians dealt with Covid-19 like a gambling game

The town of Pavia in southern Milan is home to the mathematician Gerolamo Cardano, the father of probability theory. Photo: New York Times.
The town of Pavia in southern Milan is home to the mathematician Gerolamo Cardano, the father of probability theory. Photo: New York Times.

Italian health experts say that when the health care system is overloaded because of Covid-19, there are so many variables that we cannot know what will happen.

With his glasses blurred from wearing a mask, Riccardo Rosso, a math historian, scribbled on the blackboard the possible results in a dice game to describe the possibility of corona virus infection.

“It’s conceptually the same, it’s still probabilistic,” Mr. Rosso said but noted that there are many unresolved variables in the health care system.

Therefore, human-to-human communication – which increases the risk of exposure to the virus – can be considered a high-risk gamble.

Without numbers, everything is a hypothesis

The probability of this happening can be reduced, most obviously by restricting social interaction, “Mr. Rosso commented.

That is exactly the approach of the whole of Italy at the moment. The first blockade of 11 towns, then a large area where 16 million people live, and finally on a national scale – when the government requires all service providers to close, except for drugstores and supermarkets.

The boot-shaped country is trying to reduce the risk that this pandemic will spread further, as Italy is the worst affected region in Europe.

But caution is always welcome along with panic, paranoia and fear. “What is the probability of my infection?” – that is the question in most people’s minds right now.

In Italy, there is no better place to discuss this issue than Pavia, a town of 75,000 people south of Milan – an area considered the epicenter of the country. Pavia has been dubbed the Las Vegas of Italy for its popularity of slot machines and slot machines.

Moreover, Pavia was also famous for being the hometown of Gerolamo Cardano, a famous mathematician and doctor in the 16th century. His father was an assistant to Leonardo da Vinci, his brothers and sisters were all killed because the plague, and the gambleness of gambling inspired Cardano to create research on whether he could predict or calculate destiny.

This groundbreaking work made him regarded as the father of probability theory, something that the modern world does not remember until something random and terrible – a pandemic, for example – entices Everyone’s attention to this field of mathematics.

In Pavia Hospital’s intensive care unit, doctors are treating a so-called “Patient No. 1” – a 38-year-old man, Unilever Group employee, previously healthy and interested jogging – allegedly helping the virus spread throughout Italy’s Lombardy region.

Doctors here are trying to calculate the probability of infection, illness and death. Dr. Raffaele Bruno, the director of the hospital’s infectious diseases department, said he and his colleagues are completing a patient data set to help international colleagues better understand what they are doing. must face to face.

Cardano’s research has contributed to building the belief that we can infer better results in a game based on fixed rules and parameters, so the risk can be assessed. more precisely.

That thought has shaped many things in the modern world. The concept of manipulating risks is common in creating public health policies, from wearing a seat belt, wearing a helmet to banning smoking.

But for corona virus, the game becomes much harder. Small, normal or even bland actions, such as going to the supermarket or drinking with friends, or even pressing an elevator in public places suddenly become a new unknown variable. .

The health system may collapse

San Matteo Hospital in Pavia, where doctors are struggling with overcrowding in intensive care units. Photo: New York Times.
San Matteo Hospital in Pavia, where doctors are struggling with overcrowding in intensive care units. Photo: New York Times.

The seemingly random nature of the virus is worrisome, but the risk parameters also change as it spreads, not only by infecting more people but also overloading the health system, causing for diagnosis and treatment possibilities are no longer certain. Shortages of patient beds and medical equipment will appear.

“You can calculate proportions when you have numbers, if you don’t have numbers, then everything is a hypothesis,” said Fausto Baldanti, an epidemiologist at Pavia Hospital.

Mr Baldanti said the hospital’s early effort to isolate corona virus patients and other patients had reduced deaths, and the hospital had done what he called “large-scale expansion with the unit.” special treatment”.

He said the strong blockade of the Lombardy region has reduced the number of fatal infections and deaths. Even so, the number of new infections in Italy has increased and has surpassed 12,000 cases this week.

Because the health system is overloaded, care is no longer a constant, according to Baldanti.

On March 11, Giorgio Gori, Mayor of Bergamo Town, who posted on Twitter that the intensive care rooms had become so overwhelmed that many patients could not be treated and died. He also said in a later interview that doctors were forced to leave those with a lower chance of survival.

Hospital officials in the town said it almost collapsed when patients infected with the corona virus accounted for 60 of the 80 intensive care beds in the hospital.

Risk reduction

Health experts believe that Italy's health care system could collapse if the infection rate remains as fast as it is today. Photo: AP.
Health experts believe that Italy’s health care system could collapse if the infection rate remains as fast as it is today. Photo: AP.

Nino Cartabellotta, a well-known public health researcher in Italy, said more than half of the 851 intensive care rooms in the Lombardy region are flooded with corona virus patients.

“When the system is full, the death rate spikes,” Cartabellotta said, adding that if this trend continues as it is now, the healthcare system in northern Italy – where standards of care Higher medical care or the equivalent of much of Europe – will collapse.

“So it is important for everyone to stay indoors,” he recommends.

According to the math historian Rosso, Cardano realized that “nothing is ever certain, but people can put themselves in a situation that minimizes risk.”

With corona virus, that means “preventive measures to prevent” the risk of infection.

“Cardano said in the end, the biggest advantage you have in gambling is not playing at all,” said Rosso, though Cardano himself was not happy about the choice.

For weeks, Italians were also unhappy, sometimes complied with, sometimes angry with the blockade measures they imposed.

Gabriele Zanardi, a psychologist at Pavia University, said Cardano showed that interpreting numbers is just as important as the numbers themselves.

He said the initial reaction of the government and the news made the alert system stand up, and subsequent efforts to reassure the feeling of security.

“One day it felt like a pandemic, the next day it was like seasonal flu,” said Zanardi. Others, having a “fearless psychology”, make them rebellious with measures.

“They want to control the uncontrollable things,” he said. “It’s like gambling.”