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R is no longer a letter. Today, because the world is fighting a pandemic of Biblical undertones, R is a number. Four months ago, only epidemiologists used to talk about R to refer to the “effective reproduction number”, that is, how one person could pass the virus to others, and in measuring this exponential figure, how quickly the rate of contagion would spread across the land. Explaining what R is in simple terms also made the German chancellor Angela Merkel a social media celebrity.

This chemical engineer, in striking contrast to their colleagues and predecessors, who were mostly Law professionals, demonstrated what an R of 1 meant for a country of 83.4 million people and what a slight increase to an R of 1.2 or 1.3 managed to inflict on a population of that size because of its exponential velocity. The rate at which R increases, quite simply, is not linear, that is, does not increase by a factor of 1, but by its multiplication by itself. I have used this formula to explain to audiences how the Internet, a digital force of transformation and disruption, was almost imperceptible until 2011, and how from thereafter, the perfect storm rose to exponential levels impossible to be oblivious to their effects. Marc Andreseen called it “the software is eating the world” dilemma, and for that he meant that any company turning their backs to digitalisation would be left behind in their ability to contribute to progress and survive. Today R is a letter that puts nations under a deadly quandary that involves allowing the economy to restart or being unable to contain the spread of a deadly disease. R is what every health minister in the world is assessing when deciding if people will have the common sense to keep social distancing and strict disinfection protocols at all times, or the lure of a life long past of handshakes, hugs and kisses, and squeezing inside a train carriage would bring R to dismal figures of self-destruction. Death by social gathering. Death by population density. How apocalyptic.  

Today R is a letter that puts nations under a deadly quandary that involves allowing the economy to restart or being unable to contain the spread of a deadly disease

R is not the only thing that has altered its meaning in the popular consciousness. Z is for Zoom videocall, or Zumba, the new cardio frenzy that has taken over living rooms across the globe, D is for disinfectant, and five o’clock is no longer the time to stroll down to the pub before catching your train home, but the time of the daily broadcast that the British government sends to report on R. Yesterday, for the first time, the Prime Minister spoke about R and my mobile phone melted with text messages from friends and family asking what kind of esoteric math we were being sold from the Westminster pulpit. We are living the days of the Alphabet alchemy where letters are numbers, numbers are images, and V is no longer the hand sign that made Churchill famous, but the notion of a virus like no other, a zombie pathogen that is dead but actively seeking to re-incarnate in a host cell inside your body. 

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The fight against this virus will be held within confines of our own lives before a pharmaceutical company successfully trials an anti-SARS-Cov2 drug therapy

Before V stands for vaccine - which will take years to achieve, V will take an unprecedented pole position in our lives. The sooner we comprehend what kind of virus we are dealing with, the quicker the population will ascertain the lethal enemy that we are facing. We must truly learn what this V is because the fight against this virus will be held in the trenches, that is, within the confines of our own lives before a pharmaceutical company successfully trials an anti-SARS-Cov2 drug therapy. Buying and using the adequate equipment will keep us from harm as well as radically changing how we live our daily lives. Act as if your life depended on it rather than waiting for your government to tell you what to do. Governments arrive late and disorganised. In the A.I. and academic spheres, where I live, we know of Covid-19 since December 31, 2019. BlueDot, a Canadian startup which jumped to stardom when they correctly predicted that the Zika virus would spread to Florida, USA, let all government agencies and academic institutions know that they had detected, contrasted and correctly identified an unusual spread of pneumonia around a street market in Wuhan, China. The first death occurred days later, on January 9, 2020 and by January 15 transmission from human to human was confirmed. It took the WHO the whole month to put together a press release and declare the coronavirus outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" (PHEIC). Governments are slow because their leadership structure is built on 19th century models and post-World War II mindsets and attitudes. The 21st century requires an agile rate of reaction because the DNA of this century is digital, entrepreneurial and intimately connected. What happens in China, or Vegas, no longer remains there but spreads around the globe at supersonic speed.

A.I. - those two letters that have concerned many for the last five years, did spot the pandemic, and not only it is busy analysing on a daily basis how it spreads but it is also involved in a myriad of drug therapy development projects, spotting how to stop the dissemination of fake news about the virus which would entice people to adopt behaviours that would put them and others at harm, and helping create testing kits based on sequencing the virus genome code. Perhaps, from now on, A.I. will finally come to mean a “force for good”, like I and others have always endeavoured for it to be for the highest benefit of all concerned. #namesnotnumbers