James Elliott goes back 400 years to understand what kinds of deaths are a tragedy and which are statistics – gauging emotional waypoints along the way
A couple of things happened this week that reminded me that we need to have a chat about something we all have in common – death. First, it was reported that the official global Covid-19 death toll has now reached five million.
However, that’s just the official figure with some modellers reckoning that the actual number of Covid-19 deaths globally could be as many as 15 million. With so many pandemic-related numbers being churned out every day it’s easy to glide past that grim statistic to check out other statistics like how many of us have been vaccinated or how many of the Prime Minister’s impromptu press conferences have been drowned out by hecklers.
The official global Covid death toll of five million is more or less New Zealand’s entire population, and the unofficial number of 15 million is our population three times over. And yet it’s still hard to take in the enormity of those numbers, even if we express them as 5,000,000 and 15,000,000.
Worldwide there are 13 deaths each year caused by toppling vending machines and up to 10 deaths from the running of bulls. This explains why there are very few vending machines in Pamplona.
“One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic” is an observation credited to Josef Stalin, a man well qualified to comment about deaths by the million given he’s assumed to be responsible for the deaths of about 20 million Russians. Of course Stalin, who incidentally died from a stroke, was quite wrong. There’s a number much less than a million at which deaths in general, and Covid deaths in particular, are just a statistic.
I’m hesitant to add yet another graph into the daily mix but we do need one that plots the emotional response to the impending New Zealand Covid death toll from tragedy to statistic. Of course those aren’t the only two points on the y axis – to get from tragedy to statistic you have to pass through the emotional waypoints of “How Awful”, “That’s Unfortunate” and “Inevitable Really”.
The unknown at this stage is the number that correlates to each of those waypoints. This is not a thought experiment. Everyone will have to plot their own numbers over the coming months and then make them available for peer review. To give you a guide, if you know someone who’s trumpeting the apparent success of the UK pandemic response, and I think Newstalk ZB listeners do, then with a total death toll of 141,000 that’s now increasing by more than 200 deaths each day, they probably won’t have room on the y axis for many, if any, emotional waypoints between tragedy and statistic.
The other death reminder I received this week was from a friend who sent me a statistical breakdown of deaths in London in 1632, 33 years before the Great Plague that killed one in four Londoners. My curiosity as to why my friend sent me this information was quickly surpassed by my curiosity as to what was killing Londoners the best part of 400 years ago.
You might recall from your history class that plotter Guy Fawkes’ cause of death was hanging followed by drawing and quartering – and you’d be wrong. Guy Fawkes fell from the scaffold from which he was to be hanged and broke his neck – quite the unique statistic.
The “Rising of the Lights”, a pleasant sounding passing from a distinctly unpleasant lung disease, accounted for 98 deaths. The “King’s Evil”, which sounds like death at the hands of an evil king but isn’t, accounted for 38 deaths. The “King’s Evil” referred to the tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands, a condition that was supposedly curable by the touch of royalty – useful information in an age when the public utility of royalty is under the microscope. Somewhat surprisingly there were only 12 recorded deaths by syphilis, referred to in England as the French Pox and referred to in France as the Spanish Pox.
Sorry to have to be so blunt but we all have to die from something. And while a large number of deaths from a single cause can rapidly become a statistic, ironically so can a small number of deaths from an unusual cause. For example, worldwide there are 13 deaths each year caused by toppling vending machines and up to 10 deaths from the running of bulls. This explains why there are very few vending machines in Pamplona.
As to causes of death in New Zealand, the health authorities seem to be both quick and strident to stress when the cause of death of a hospitalised Covid patient is something other than Covid. I’m not saying that Covid-caused deaths are being, or will be, misclassified, but I am saying mind how you go near the vending machines in our public hospitals.
My third and final death reminder comes today, Guy Fawkes Day, a day on which we commemorate the foiling of a plot in 1605 to blow up the English Parliament with explosives. We do so, ironically, by setting off explosives. You might recall from your history class that plotter Guy Fawkes’ cause of death was hanging followed by drawing and quartering – and you’d be wrong. Guy Fawkes fell from the scaffold from which he was to be hanged and broke his neck – quite the unique statistic.
Have a peaceful weekend.