In relation to COVID-19 it was clear early on that “superspreader events” were critical. That in fact, these events were driving the pandemic in some deep way, with there being huge variance in the number of people individuals have spread the disease to if they were infected.
Readers of this weblog will not be intimidated by a word like kurtosis. But it is different for readers of The Atlantic, notwithstanding the fact that they have the pleasure of imbibing the deep insights of America’s foremost public intellectual, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. But rather than the august Dr. Kendi, I want to point you to Zeynep Tufekci, now at The Atlantic, but originally hired by The New York Times in March of 2015. Her piece, This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic, is probably what you should share with less statistically literate members of your family.
Tufekci’s piece is strewn with gems of fact. For example, ~70% of people infected with COVID-19 may not transmit it to anyone else, even if the mean number of transmissions is closer to 3 individuals. The explanation of what’s going on is that like many social science phenomena, but unlike influenza, the spreading of COVID-19 occurs through a minority of big transmitters. That is, it follows a power-law distribution and adheres to the Pareto principle.
Last spring I read that Japan was focused on super-spreader events, and was somewhat skeptical of this strategy. How could they identify superspreader events? Well, it turns out that these events tend to adhere to some necessary, though not sufficient, conditions. Large crowds, enclosed spaces, and poor ventilation. But, Tufekci also points out that superspreader events occur stochastically. Not all, or even most, instances, where conditions are met, will produce an outbreak. Some will. This is not surprising, but as she admits in the piece it’s a really difficult thing for people to accept and internalize. Sometimes we can’t always ascertain a specific cause. Stuff just happens.
Anyway, pass the piece on to your relatives and friends.