The Problem with (Coronavirus) Statistics

Statistics are useful but don’t they often hide more than they reveal?

I remember the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. I used to check the stats and the updates on Worldometer to get an idea of the scale of what was happening. Here’s a quick glimpse.

When the deaths were few, the site used to mention details about the people who passed away—their age, gender, whether they had any preexisting health conditions.

Sometimes they’d mention things like “an XX-year-old, the mother of a student returned from holidays in [insert a country here],” and I’d think, imagine what must go on now in the head of that student, the guilt he/she is probably feeling for having brought the virus home to his/her mother.

Or “an 6X-year-old man with diabetes” and I’d think, perhaps that man worked very hard all his life and he really looked forward to his retirement.

Or “an 5X-year-old nurse/doctor” and I’d think, how unfair these times are for the nurses/doctors, and I wonder how many of them would still have chosen to become nurses/doctors if they knew something like this would happen, and I think most of them would still have become nurses/doctors because at the end of the day most of them are courageous and generous.

Now, the site doesn’t show such details anymore except for countries with very few cases. Understandably so. Thousands of people are dying every day and it would be impractical to list them all

So, I limit myself to learning about the dead in my country. To do this, I check official daily press releases. Here’s a glimpse of one in rough translation from Google Translate:

There are dozens of people listed every day, and I look at each of them, but these numbers and stats don’t produce a very definitive sentiment in me.

Numbers and Strangers

It is something akin to sadness, but it is remote from me, because I have never known these people or their families. I do not know their names, their faces, their habits, the acts of kindness they’ve done, their reaction when they were taken to hospital, if they had a reaction at all.

They are all strangers to me.

Sometimes, I find in a press release someone closer to my age, give or take a year or two, and that case invariably attracts my curiosity and I read it more carefully. Because it feels closer to home.

But still, that person is a stranger to me. Still my sadness is remote. And I go on with my life as usual, hardly sparing a thought for the dead.

Maybe you get the numbers from telly. It doesn’t really matter where we get them from. We close the telly or the computer and go on with our lives with a sense of apprehension, but with a sadness that’s not personal.

Because it’s not real people that we see dying, it’s only the numbers that die for us. How much more different things are for a family who’s had a coronavirus death or for a nurse/doctor in an isolation ward.

Abstraction Is Cruel, Isn’t It?

Statistics are cruel. They reduce death and suffering to an abstraction. Forgive me for quoting Stalin, but wasn’t he right?

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Joseph Stalin

It’s being said that there have been many more cases and deaths in China than reported.

Perhaps there have been 1 million cases, perhaps there have been 10 million cases, perhaps there have been 100 million cases.

Perhaps there have been thousands more deaths, tens of thousands more, hundreds of thousands more.

But could the true number sum up even a fraction of the experience of suffering that a single person, just one person–regardless of his or her age, sex, location, or comorbidities–has known before becoming, to most of us who have never known him or her, a number?

“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli

Now, when the personal details of the dead, however generic, no longer get mentioned, what do I think when I see stats like this?

The red numbers jump at us. Hundreds of deaths, thousands of deaths, yet all foreign to us, remote, abstract.

And yet, I am perhaps a bit addicted to these stats. I do confess I check them every day. I know people on most continents and sometimes I wonder, maybe it’s one of them in there, squeezed among those white numbers in red boxes.

Still, it’s good to see that there have been fewer coronavirus deaths lately in Italy and Spain. There’s that other side to statistics, they can have a bit of a calming effect when the numbers start dropping.

But then let’s take this one recent death in China. It’s just one, but why does it capture my attention?

Because big numbers dazzle us to the point of becoming almost indifferent to us? Because they desensitize us? Because it’s easier for our brains to picture one dead Chinese person than 1,157 dead Americans?

“Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination.”

Andrew Lang

For a few people, statistics are very important because it informs strategies and new measures. For the rest of us, though, statistics are not where the truth is at.

Because statistics are factual, not personal. And life is so much more personal than it can ever be factual, whatever reason will say.

The Coffin Maker

A bit of news I saw by chance on the telly when mom was watching comes to mind, how in Spain a coffin maker was working hard to make coffins in advance for the dead to come. That way he would be prepared and there would be enough coffins for everyone.

I will remember that one personal story for the rest of my life probably while the stats will all become something vague and blurry. I can’t visualize 500,000 people dead, let alone 1 million or 2 million. I just can’t. Even if the people in a medium-sized city would drop off dead, it would still be difficult.

Maybe one day I’ll have grandchildren. And if they ask about these strange times I have lived through, will I sum it all up in a number? X million cases, X thousands dead?

Probably not. Probably I’ll feel the need to put it in a way that they would understand. Probably I would tell them the story of the coffin maker.

Because if I’d tell them that XXXXXXX people have died because of a virus, would that really be more to them than a fact, a curiosity? Wouldn’t it be just like saying that 25 million people died because of the Black Death? Or that that 75 million people died durring WWI?

To that part within us that doesn’t have name but that makes us what and who we are—some call it spirit, others soul, others consciousness, I’d rather leave it unnamed–big numbers are not graspable: they remain abstractions.

Through numbers, we learn, we know, we plan, we prevent. But it’s through personal stories, through the faces beyond those numbers, that we understand.

Think I’ll stop checking the coronavirus statistiscs for a while. With the lockdown and the quiet streets and all of that, life is becoming very abstract. When in fact, life is not at all abstract, is it?

7 thoughts on “The Problem with (Coronavirus) Statistics

  1. So true about the numbers. I think there are people out there that don’t take it seriously.

    I am especially careful, curbside groceries, online ordering, etc. So, when my neighbor walked the trail last night without a mask, I was pissed. “I’m outside,” she said. ‘The doctor I work for told me I don’t need to wear one.” What if she comes down with it today? Will she inform us? Doubt it.
    She lives across the street from me. I made a mask and put it on the statue in front of our house. She can look at the physical reminder every dang day. LOL!

  2. Numbers… The fear in a world that everyday people die for lot of things. To be happy the best is don’t know anything, because too much information just cause panic…

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