Learning about the curve


Empty shelves that once cradled toilet paper rolls; lines of shoppers, some with masks; waiting 6 feet or at least a shopping cart length apart to get into grocery stores; hazmat-suited workers loading body bags into makeshift mortuaries ... These are the images we have come to associate with the COVID-19 pandemic. But then there also are the graphs and charts, none of them bearing good news. Some are difficult to interpret because they may be missing a key ingredient, such as a scale. Day to day fluctuations in the timeliness of the data points can make valid comparisons impossible. In most cases, it is too early to look at the graphs and hope for the big picture. Whether you are concerned about the stock market or the number of new cases of the virus in your county, you are hoping to see some graphic depiction of a favorable trend.

Shoppers wait in a long line outside a grocery store in Houston during the COVID-19 pandemic. Richard McMillin/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

We have suddenly learned about the urgency of a process called “flattening the curve.” Are we doing as good a job of flattening as we could be? Are we doing better than France or Spain? Or are we heading toward an Italianesque apocalypse? Who is going to tell us when the flattening is for real and not just a 2- or 3-day statistical aberration?

The curves we are obsessed with today are those showing us new cases and new deaths. But there is another curve that we will need to concentrate on long after the much yearned for flattening of the death curve has been achieved. And we won’t be seeing this curve in four-color graphics on the front page of our newspapers. It is the learning curve, and we want it to be as steep as we can make it without any hint of flattening in the foreseeable future.

We need to learn more about corona-like viruses. Why are some of us more vulnerable? We need to learn more about contagion. Does the 6-foot guideline make any sense? How long are viral particles floating in the air capable of initiating disease? What about air flow and dilution? Can we build a cruise ship or airplane that will be less of a health hazard?

More importantly, we need to learn to be better prepared. Even before the pandemic there have been shortages in intravenous solutions and drugs of critical importance to common diseases. Can we learn how to create reliable and affordable supply chains that allow researchers and developers to make a reasonable profit? Can we relearn to value science? Can we learn to invest more heavily in epidemiology and make it a specialty that attracts our best thinkers and communicators? Then can we elect officials who will share our trust in their recommendations?

Can we do a better job of resolving the tension between those who believe in a strong federal government and those who believe in local autonomy because we are seeing every day that this is an issue of survival, not just coexistence? Can we learn that the globalization that has allowed this viral spread can also be leveraged to beat it into submission?

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Over the last half century there has been an unfortunate flattening of the learning curve. Ironically we have seen exponential growth among hi-tech industries that have forced us to keep abreast of new developments. But along with this has been a growing skepticism about value of scientific investigation. It is time we climbed back on that steep learning curve. The view gets better the higher we climb.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at

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