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The crisis in real emergency-worker terms

Earlier this year I had some of my elementary students do the classic how-many-times-can-you-fold-a piece-of-paper-in-half exercise. A three-by-three sticky will get you six folds that creates a very nice little eight-by-eight grid. That’s a little stack of paper 64 thicknesses tall. The thickness of the paper is growing exponentially, and it’s not possible to fold it a seventh time. We found a 30-foot-long piece of adding machine tape would allow seven folds but no more.

When I asked the students how many pieces we would have after 10 or 20 folds, the guesses were predictably low. The mind – and not just (of) elementary students – has a difficult time grasping how quickly things increase when they double with each fold.

If you were able to continue folding, it would be just 20 folds to breach the million mark. In fact, 20 folds gets you 1,028,576 very little imaginary pieces of paper. This is exponential growth. Thirty folds and you’ve got over a billion.

Folding a piece of paper in half is trivial, but it illustrates how many things work. One weed in your yard goes to seed and pretty soon the weeds are everywhere. If it’s money you have invested, doubling is a wonderful thing.

If, however, it’s the spread of a new virus across the globe, then it’s a crisis that requires swift action. At the front end of an exponential curve, the numbers look really small and it’s hard to grasp where things are going. Remember: Twenty folds, if possible, would get you to a million.

The time has come to hit the pause button with force and alacrity. The schools have been closed, social distancing has been added to our vocabulary, and many businesses have locked their doors. To effectively slow down the growth of COVID-19, we need to stop just about everything but the essentials.

Let’s focus our energy, talents and resources to the vulnerable and the front-line workers. We need health care workers who are healthy. We need truck drivers who can deliver food to our stores. The folks who keep the utilities working need to be healthy so that we have electricity, gas, water and garbage service. The police and fire departments need to be fully staffed.

A couple of weeks ago, the city sewer backed up into a manhole on my property. I was very impressed with the rapid and professional response by the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority. Trust me, we need toilets to flush. We need healthy workers.

Every unnecessary contact is one more chance the virus can double more rapidly. Heed the words of the witches in Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble.” It’s not just two doublings that we face. It’s a string of doublings that will greatly increase our toil and trouble.

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