The Chasm Between Zero and One

When I was a kid, I had an adult explain why he buys lottery tickets when the jackpot gets big. “If I have zero tickets, it’s not possible to win. But if I have one, my chances go from impossible to possible. It’s a completely different situation, even if my chances are still small.”

Wayne Gretzky, the famous hockey player, has a famous quote about this as well: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Even if you’re the worst hockey player in the world, your chances go up infinitely when you move from zero shots to one. Things go from impossible to possible.

And that’s how the coronavirus works. Whether your country has 50,000 new cases a day or 5, infection is still possible. If you take 5 people, place them in an enclosed, populated, and poorly ventilated space, they can infect hundreds or thousands at once. Within two weeks, enough transmission chains can be built to have 500,000 new cases a day.

So the number of active cases doesn’t matter nearly as much as how a country handles it. A country can have 1 case but refuse to track, socially distance, use masks, or provide speedy and accurate testing, and be in worse shape than a country with 1000 cases and a good attitude.

I live in New Zealand, and we had a glorious 100 days where there were zero known community cases. I traveled to a big city on business, I went out to nightlife, shopped at stores, hugged my friends, and everything was exactly the way it was before Covid. (Except with fewer tourists) Kiwis weren’t even wearing masks, and why would we? We were at zero.

But two nights ago, New Zealand discovered four unexplained cases in the community. Last night we learned about five more. There are two ways to look at this: by the numbers, or by the math. By the numbers, we only have 9 cases. But the math tells us those 9 cases can reach thousands within weeks, crippling the country, if we don’t handle it correctly right at the start.

So we’re back on lockdown, preparing for stricter lockdowns, and everyone I know is making or buying masks. But all this activity isn’t about the nine cases we know about. It’s about the chasm between zero and one. From an impossibility to a possibility. So we adjust.



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Jon Bell

Jon Bell

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.