World against COVID-19. Our colleagues' thoughts about the situation: Montserrat Guillen

April 02, 2020

The show must go on

Montserrat Guillen (Dept. Econometrics, Riskcenter, Universitat de Barcelona, Editor-in-Chief of the Insurance Markets and Companies journal).

As I am writing these lines, we are living the worst health problem many of us have experienced ever before in Europe. Too many humans are suffering, and meanwhile the words of a famous song by a British band called Queen have come to my mind: “The show must go on”. This piece was written by Brian May and Freddy Mercury in 1991, when Freddy was very ill; this is a hymn to endurance and devotion. May feared that Mercury would not be able to record the song before his death, but he did, and he did it in one shot.
And this is my song before I make a list of my duties every day. Because, looking at the data is discouraging, seeing videos and photos is dispiriting, chatting with friends from abroad is disheartening. However, classes must go on and the students are eager to learn and they demand video classes, live connections, materials, feedback, they want us to be there with them and they need us to help. At the Riskcenter research group at the University of Barcelona we were in the middle of the Spring semester, when this nightmare started, most of the members have broadcasted their regular classes. All students have been collaborating. Fortunately, last year we had recorded a few classes on machine learning and data analytics and we have provided the video link to the new students and given them additional examples to practice.
The adaptation to new forms of lecturing and interacting with students has been fascinating, much faster than expected. The students are more than nice. They always first ask about health and the health of relatives and then they go to the point, they are more than polite. However they miss seeing their classmates and even if they do not say that, I am sure that they miss the lecturers too.
The bad part is the tsunami of information, data, predictions, models. There are too many journalists looking for messages to feed a scared population. The Spanish Society of Statistics and Operations Research recommended its members to avoid speculative results. I think this is the best advice I have received these days. There is very little that statisticians can do with the current official data. Data are full of biases, structural changes, definitions of what is been counted almost change every day. There are two things I, myself, have done. First, on March 11, I was interviewed on a local radio station and said, this would be a date to remember in the books. Many could not see that and I was trembling, because I knew I was going to be accused of being too alarmist. Second, I have kept an update estimate of the base length of the epidemic curve, no need to estimate the curve itself, just the base is enough. The longer this base, the better.
For risk managers, today’s situation is a nothing but a catastrophe, and when such a big event occurs, the optimal answer is solidarity. There is nothing more efficient than giving help and getting help from others, there is nothing better than making the show go on.