Viral Days

Pandemic Mathematics

Covid-19 has surrounded us in a flurry of numbers, but what’s behind the digits?

By Chloe Shaw | September 21, 2020
Nenad Stojkovic (Flickr/nenadstojkovic)
Nenad Stojkovic (Flickr/nenadstojkovic)

1. 14 =

  1. A. Days it can take for finch eggs to hatch
  2. B. Days it can take for Covid-19 symptoms to appear
  3. C. The age I was when I first fell in love
  4. D. All of the above

We left the Christmas wreath outside our front door up through March again this year, in the hopes that a finch pair would appear. Last year, we’d unintentionally learned that if you leave it, they will come. Out of dehydrated, manmade loops of fir and holly leapt avian life. Last year’s wreath housed two separate nests and seven total chicks. I was there peeking and picture-taking the entire time and caught the actual moment the last two chicks fledged from the second nest like floppy fighter jets straight out over the driveway into our lilac hedge.

This year’s pair of finches, whom my daughter named Frank and Sara, arrived on March 16, the same day we learned that my children would not be returning to school after spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic. I watched Frank hop around the top of the wreath as Sara wiggled into different nooks and crannies, assessing the perfect space in which to build. As she burrowed her body in, she flattened the prickly needles and branches to make the perfect shape for their eggs’ future home. I’d watched her fly back and forth between the world and wreath with small sticks and soft, unknowable materials, feeling increasingly unknowable myself, having spent the week doing much of the same, though with groceries and supplies from Costco and Trader Joe’s. At the Costco in our southern Connecticut town, a guard (unarmed) doled out the sanitizing wipes so that only one pack went to each customer. Toilet paper, on the other hand, was left to the wolves.

Back then, I could still see my reflection in the mirror—we were scrubbing our hands to bits, but not yet wearing masks. Back then, people who did show up in the outside world in masks were the crazy ones. I was not crazy, so I could still see myself staring back at myself, still see the freckles on my nose darkening with the strengthening spring sun and my mouth when it yawned and sneezed and smiled (or didn’t). My eyes reflected whole globes of pink fright.

Within a couple of weeks, the finch nest was built. And so was ours, our freezer and cupboards and basement filled with whatever I’d decided might sustain us (frozen dumplings, three kinds of mustard, and Hostess apple fruit pies somehow made the cut)—and for how long? Two weeks? Two months? How many is too many rolls of toilet paper? How many is not enough? And why toilet paper? Why not puppies or coffee beans? What do you want to hold you while you’re clinging to life?



In the early days of being Teach—as my husband started calling me when on March 30 our distance-learning began—I sat outside on an unusually warm day with my son Jackson, 10, and daughter Rae, six, taking note of the spring’s first daffodils.

“There are three!” Rae shouted.

“No,” Jackson said. “There are seven. You missed the four by the rock wall.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “If you’re still, you can even see them growing!”

We all sat there for a while, so still that the hummingbirds might have landed on us, if there were any hummingbirds yet. I’ve never seen one in our yard so early in the year. But that afternoon we did see three deer, seven wild turkeys, and 5.5 billion chipmunks.

“Nice job, guys,” I said. “I think we just completed math for today.”

Math. My old, appalling so-and-so. My worst friend on the worst day of the worst year of my life. I didn’t mind a little geometry and early, simple algebra as a kid, but everything else involving numbers enraged me. Just the sight of their delicate, taunting contours made me feel insane. Yet here I was now, an adult suddenly stuck in a world of gargantuan, glittering digits lit with the science and medicine that would keep us safe and, as history now knows, as many of us as possible alive. It was one of the first things I’d noticed once the virus came to town—even as it made its wicked, microscopic approach: our house normally filled with words had become a house of numbers. At precisely 2:51 p.m., March 12, 2020, 48 degrees Fahrenheit, latitude 41.310726, longitude -72.929916—the time and place I last picked my children up from their school, last waved to their teachers and shared in the ominous moment with other parents, last freely circulated among humans—I felt my words wobble away from me and numbers take hold.



“Seven!” Rae announced at breakfast in early April, as she counted aloud her Band-Aids.

“Ninety-eight,” Jackson said. He was excited and red, right up in my face. “I’m a 98, Mom!”

I had no idea what he was talking about—though, phew, I thought, that’s a pretty normal temperature—until he explained that it had to do with an app with which you can build dream soccer teams. He’d want me to say it one more time, so: he was a 98, you guys.

“247,” my psychoanalyst husband whispered during a snack break between the tele-therapy sessions he’d been conducting in our bedroom—in response to my question of how many Covid patients there were that day at Yale New Haven, where he supervises psychiatric residents. All that number did for me was conjure the numbers he didn’t give me. How many patients were already there? How many intubated? How many dead?

“Get me more numbers!” I thought I heard myself scream.

The next morning, when my family filed into the Coffee Zone, otherwise known as the kitchen, all I could say to them was, “Five!” There were five eggs in the finch nest. “Fourteen more days until babies!” I announced. But I was thinking, Let’s hope the virus doesn’t hatch first.

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” I told my son’s teacher, Denise, that evening. “Parent or teacher?”

“You are their comfort,” Denise said.

We both cried.


2. 1 family + 1 pandemic =

    A. Death
    B. Life
    C. Madness
    D. All of the above

Since the days of my math-averse childhood, math phobia—the idea that one’s fear of math is greater than one’s actual ability—has become a thing. And despite periodic stints of statistical success, my paralysis has always felt elemental. I’ve never liked the severity of only one answer; I’ve always preferred the long, velvet rush of words that never end. It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s never been a more pleasing number to me than the one given on a Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch on Saturday Night Live. During Final Jeopardy, Will Ferrell, playing Alex Trebek, exasperatedly says to the three dimwitted contestants, “I tell you what, just write a number. Any number, any number and you win.” To which Jimmy Fallon’s French Stewart writes, “threeve.” It sounded perfectly fine to my ears because though threeve is a worthless number, it’s a wonderful word.

As a high-school junior, I had somehow completed analysis and trigonometry (with lots of help and patience from Ms. Ting) and found myself at that notorious crossroad between those who continue on to calculus and those who don’t. I was surely a those-who-don’t, but luckily my loosey-goosey, fantastically inventive school offered an alternative: Richard Mann’s Math and Humanism class, in which several of us kindred folk were encouraged to consider the subject from a more obtuse standpoint, writing math term papers—mine on the architecture of Le Corbusier—and playing a game called Guesstimation that asked us to solve silly stumpers like: How many McDonald’s French fries laid end-to-end would it take to get to the moon? In those pre-Wikipedia days, we had to formulate our best guess using whatever knowledge we already held in our heads. How long is an average McDonald’s French fry, anyway? How many miles to the moon? How many inches in a mile? It was excruciating and hilarious to share our vastly different answers before desperately dispersing back to the arts. Harriet (who was often my partner) and I always hated going first because that meant there was no time to save face and adjust our answer according to any emerging consensus. But for the first time, in that classroom, I also kind of loved math because now when I saw a number, I knew its story. And stories are how I’ve survived. At least I’ve always believed so.

When I think of Mr. Mann’s class now, it occurs to me that, of course, I’ve always lived in a world of numbers. I grew up in New York City with an architect father and a caterer mother—all around me, buildings were being measured, ingredients weighed, dishes timed. Today, I am the one counting and taking measure. I am 45; I have three surgical scars; I set my alarm for 6:30; I check the day’s temperature every morning—my children’s now, too. But, as a writer and someone often lost in the vast electric cavity of my head, I have learned to rely on words to bend the numbers into a more suitable story. One month ago, I was still 44. Though two of those surgeries didn’t work, one radiantly did. Sometimes I hit snooze until 7. I decide to focus on the predicted low for the day (75) rather than the unbearable high (in the 100s)—both outside in our yard and inside against the perfect crackling fire of my daughter’s hot head, when smack in the middle of our Pandemic Summer, a stretch of months during which our house of young children has never before been so germ-free, she spiked a fever of 103. One hundred and three is the smallest number requiring 18 letters when spelled out in English. One hundred and three is a not-too-shabby bowling score. An outrageous number of mate-less socks. But there in her bed-for-one that turns into a bed-for-two by way of a trundle in our 18th-century house set amid 18th-century trees, 103 was a terrible number. No matter how hard I tried to warp the story behind those three digits into something more palatable, less scary, it wouldn’t budge. It was terrible for three days. Then it was negative. The test, I mean.

In the wake of my relief, I realized that that’s what’s different here in this sudden and prolonged numerical march of Covid. There is no story behind the numbers of a pandemic—or rather, the numbers are the story. Numbers are how we might survive. I don’t think in stories anymore, when I can think at all. Numbers help us think. Science helps us think. Anthony Fauci (blessedly) helps us think. We’re being told to make life’s biggest decisions—do we send our children to school? Leave our jobs? Get a second job? Have surgery? Sell our houses? Have a baby?—based on our local infection rates. Only after the death of a loved one to Covid is added to the body count is the story of that life and body told. You are a number, in this case, before you’re a name. So whatever you do, don’t forget your name. You are a body temperature, an oxygen level, a preciously accounted for ventilator and bed.

3. 806 =

    A. An outstanding number of career home runs
    B. Deaths in New York City on Tuesday, April 7
    C. The area code for Lubbock, Texas
    D. All of the above

Based on the low numbers of Covid cases in our county right now, my children’s school recently opened for in-person learning after a few days of gradually, grade-by-grade, welcoming the (masked) children back to campus. My daughter (grade 2) spent the week leading up to her first day seeing how many consecutive hours she could wear a mask, because once at school she has to wear one for seven hours, with built-in breaks for snacks and lunch and, just, you know, air.

As I fist-bumped my kids that first day after their temperatures were confirmed normal through the open car window by a beloved teacher whose half-a-face we only half-recognized, I realized that my children—my bright, bubbling, mysterious children—have also become numbers. And yet, as my teacher friend so crushingly and eloquently put it recently when considering the data-driven conversations around sending teachers back into schools, “I am not a number. I am a person. My coworkers are not numbers. They are people. My children are not numbers. They are people. My students are not numbers. They are people. I understand the need for people to use data to inform decisions. But it is a very out-of-body experience to know the numbers they are talking about could be you.” As it has for so many other frontline workers, the virus has turned her from Woman/Mother/Teacher/Wife into a number of unknown value somewhere between life and death. Blood and bones and organs into math. My children now, too. But without that math, I wonder how any of us would survive. I cling to numbers (and masks) now like I used to cling to words, diligently checking the statistics for New Haven County every morning before zipping up the lunch packs. Will today be the day our school closes? Will tomorrow? Who will get sick first? The numbers in Connecticut are slowly on the rise.

When I checked the finch nest on the morning of April 25, the eggs had hatched. The little pink-white fluffballs sat like tiny explosions when I peeked, though we all know what work it took to get them there. Only later did I realized that one of the eggs remained intact. I saw that bright little perfect-looking light-blue egg, with speckles like the freckles on my kids, roll from under one chick to under another. I noticed how quickly the shells from the hatched eggs were taken from the nest by the mother. (I read that birds do this in order to deter predators.) But that unhatched egg stayed. Was it too heavy? Too awkward for such a tiny beak? Or did the mother still consider it one of her babies, just a little different, less needy, from the rest? Was the number four heartbreaking to her somehow? Nature and numbers can be cruel. Or was that fifth egg simply another number to her?

We buried that unhatched fifth egg at the back of our yard, near where the woods begin. This is where we buried our old dog, Booker, our two cats, Tito and Lolita, and numerous wild animals who’d incidentally met their end here. In late August, while walking our dogs there, Jackson and I discovered an eviscerated baby possum, which we buried on the spot. My daughter was already asleep, so she didn’t get to see the smooth, gray baby with the tiny but unmistakable tail not quite like a rope yet, but maybe a friendship bracelet. When I told her about it the next morning, she asked me to dig it up. At first, I said, “Oh, no, honey, we can’t do that.” But she pleaded, so I said okay. I watched her eyes grow big, taking the little limp thing in. I thought, Has math simply become the word for death and survival? Has it always been? Was she suddenly aware of herself as a number now? That possum was one of maybe 20 babies. Rae is one of two—actually three, if you count my miscarriage. I am one of one—actually two, if you count my mother’s miscarriage. Eight has always been my favorite number, because it was Gary Carter’s number, and he was the Mets’ catcher during the triumphant 1986 World Series, which I was allowed to stay up late watching all week, and he was my favorite player, too, and when he got really excited (and I say this with my whole, sincere, 11-year-old heart), he reminded me of an exceptionally pleased groundhog, and that exceptionally pleased me. But does it make me an eight if I swallow eight times whenever I sip from a glass or count eight stars before I go to bed? If you were a number, which number would you be? And you are a number. We are all numbers. So think carefully. Proceed with caution toward the number you most want to be. Then add it to the number of the most vulnerable person you don’t know.

4. 2 strangers + 2 masks + 6 feet =

    A. Love
    B. Love
    C. Love
    D. All of the above

A few days before returning to school last week, my daughter was working on some virtual assignments. Her math problem captured my attention. On her Google slide, it said: Family Interview: How do you use math at home? There were some prewritten categories that she was supposed to circle if applicable. I sat down and answered her questions. Cooking (yes), building projects (yes), computer (yes), paying bills (yes), gardening or yard work (yes), hobbies (yes). Then there were two blank spaces after the words “other ways,” a place for my more personal answers. I hastily offered, “driving” and “working out at Tuff Girl,” my gym (which I attend virtually now). As I watched her carefully spell out my answers in thick, purple marker, I thought of Mr. Mann and of all the real math I use at home right now. “Math and Humanism,” I should have told her.

If you are the designated grocery shopper in your family, for how many minutes after shopping among a sea of mouthless people do you weep in your car? Does Dolly Parton or Killer Mike pull you out of it?

If you have one dead cat whom you haven’t had time to mourn—because really, a cat? When so many humans are dying? Where is there room for him, your first baby?—how many months will it take you to bake the clay impression of the paw print that unexpectedly came back from the crematorium along with his clumpy, gray ash? And if you do wait six months before baking it, when you burn it in the toaster oven while helping your daughter with Zoom, what will it take for you not to hurl it at the fucking window?

If you, too, are standing right now (sinkhole, waist-level) in delirious deference to numbers, can’t you simultaneously wonder how many Covid patients laid end-to-end it’s going to take to get to a world of words again? And if you don’t know who you are anymore either, can you still be someone else’s comfort? Who, what, is yours?

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