Australian mathematicians rise to the challenge of COVID-19

(This is a guest post by Dr Joel Miller, introducing a miniseries of articles/essays by Australian mathematicians involved in the pandemic response)

Mathematics plays an integral role in our daily lives.  A smart phone that guides you to your destination relies on mathematical routines to calculate your position, other algorithms find the optimal route, and yet others ensure that the communications from your phone are secure.  The central role that mathematics plays throughout scientific disciplines comes largely because our mathematical models of the natural world, built on observation, give us remarkable predictive power and allow us to design systems that perform optimally.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not have time to do careful experiments comparing different policies before implementing them.  What we had was information about how efficiently the disease spreads, some hints that it could spread through asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected individuals, and estimates of the distribution of severity in different age groups.  That knowledge grew as different countries began to experience outbreaks.

Armed with this knowledge policy makers were forced to make decisions about their response.  They needed a way to turn this limited information about the mechanisms underlying disease spread into projections of what the future would hold.  Mathematical modelling was the tool that let us rigorously determine what consequences could follow from different policy decisions and different plausible disease properties.  The modelling effort relied on a wide range of techniques and modellers from different backgrounds and career levels, ranging from student to senior academic, as well as researchers working within health departments.

Lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by our response to it.  In this series some of the mathematical modellers who played a role in advising Australia’s (thus far) stunningly successful response give their perspective on the role that they played, showing how mathematicians at many levels played a key role in the decisions that led to COVID-19’s effective elimination in Australia.