Graphs and COVID-19

I was surprised to see an article in the March’20 issue of Forbes magazine titled, “Is Poor Math Literacy Making It Harder for People to Understand COVID-19 Coronavirus?  The article was inspired by a tweet from economist Julie Pierce, “The longer the crisis goes on and the more comments I read, the more I wonder how many people who resisted learning math in high school because they would ‘never use it in real life’ are now struggling with reading graphs, and understanding trajectories and logical outcomes.”

Do you think this health crisis is surfacing math literacy challenges? Please comment below.

My initial reaction to the quote above is to urge all of us to teach statistics, graphing, etc. using the COVID-19  crisis as an opportunity to respond to “when will we ever use this” and engage students (and their families) in a learning activity which extends beyond the classroom.

However, on more than one occasion, I’ve had pre-service and in-service teachers tell me that an example topic I was using would be inappropriate for their students and/or frowned upon by their district administrators.  Some examples are ‘discussions’ of race, death, gender, etc.  In particular, years ago I used some lung cancer data in a Statistics and Probability course, and one student started crying and left the room.  In a later discussion she said she didn’t appreciate being reminded of a family trauma (while other students seemed appreciative of the evidence of the link between smoking and cancer).

In my recent History of Math course I used the following problem.

Here’s a problem from Sun Tsu, China, 400 A.D.: A method for determining the sex of a fetus: Take 49; add the number of the month in which the woman will give birth; subtract her age. From what now remains, subtract the heaven 1, subtract the earth 2, subtract the man 3, subtract the four seasons 4, subtract the five elements 5, subtract the six laws 6, subtract the seven stars 7, subtract the eight winds 8, subtract the nine provinces 9. If then the remainder be odd, the child shall be a son; and if even, a daughter. Comment on this problem; do you think it was ‘serious’?  could you use this problem in your classroom; if so, how?  if not, why?

First of all, it’s a ‘ridiculous’ problem, since all women of the same age and due to deliver in the same month, would have children of the same gender.  While many students in my course discuss the importance of recognizing the ‘error’ in this problem, the history of math being used in ‘astrological’ settings, why not just subtract 45, and/or can negative numbers be odd/even, etc., I always have one of two students in each class that tell me their students’ parents, principal, or superintendent would frown on problems which assume awareness of pregnancy, gender determination, etc.

So, I’m hesitant to tell you that you should use this opportunity, COVID-19, while teaching statistics, especially the drawing of useful charts and graphs and, more importantly, reading graphical data, but I am.

Let’s look at this graph from The New York Times.

We don’t see graphs like this in school mathematics. The height of each bar represents the number of new cases of coronavirus, and the darker red line represents the 7-day average of cases.  An interesting question might be, “Do we want the red curved line to be above or below the height of the bars and why?” 

A similar graph from The New York Times is –

How are these two preceding graphs similar; how are they different (look at the scale on the vertical axis)?

The New York Times has a wonderful educational resource entitled, “What’s Going On in This Graph?” ( There are new graphs weekly with probing questions which can/should be used by teachers (at various levels). Students across the nation can join the conversation at the website.

Another example – here’s a graph published on March 19, 2020 which displays a model for the number of coronavirus cases over time with and without protective measures including social distancing.

What do you notice; what do you wonder; what’s the story told by these two superimposed graphs?  What does the ‘the area under the red and blue curves are equal’ tell us?

If you’re looking for ‘simpler’ graphs, here’s one from the CDC (Center for Disease Control). They’re providing both graphs and the ability to download raw data, so your students can create their own graphs and data analyses.

And simple raw data is also available at CDC such as the number of cases per state as of April 10, 2020 (which I’ve provided below for your convenience).

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Jurisdiction Cases Reported
Alabama 2838
Alaska 235
Arizona 3018
Arkansas 1127
California 18309
Colorado 6202
Connecticut 9784
Delaware 1209
District of Columbia 1523
Florida 16323
Georgia 11318
Hawaii 386
Idaho 1353
Illinois 16422
Indiana 6351
Iowa 1270
Kansas 1106
Kentucky 1452
Louisiana 18283
Maine 560
Maryland 6968
Massachusetts 18941
Michigan 21504
Minnesota 1336
Mississippi 2469
Missouri 3539
Montana 365
Nebraska 577
Nevada 2456
New Hampshire 819
New Jersey 51027
New Mexico 989
New York 157073
North Carolina 3651
North Dakota 269
Ohio 5512
Oklahoma 1684
Oregon 1321
Pennsylvania 18228
Rhode Island 1939
South Carolina 2792
South Dakota 447
Tennessee 4635
Texas 10230
Utah 2061
Vermont 628
Virginia 4509
Washington 9608
West Virginia 523
Wisconsin 2885
Wyoming 239

3 thoughts on “Graphs and COVID-19

  1. It’s hard to say that math illiteracy is the main culprit behind some people’s response to the current pandemic. Personally, I’m more likely to think about Kahneman and Tverskey. We respond to the world with System 1, and we are less prone to use System 2 and think deeply. We just aren’t built to be able to think about Black Swans (to mix my authors a bit).


  2. I agree; I don’t believe math illiteracy is responsible for the some people’s response to the current pandemic. Kahneman’s System 1 describes how the brain forms thoughts quickly; yet maybe math illiteracy blinds people so they cannot (reasonably) think/respond at all??


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