You can bet that the institutions of international government, and the “experts” advising them, will try to massage and cherry-pick statistics to present the version of events that most closely matches their worst-case scenarios. The fact is, according to their early predictions, we are already long overdue millions of Covid-19 deaths that have failed to materialise.
But even when Covid-19 deaths are recorded, we have seen how it could be that people are dying with coronavirus rather than dying of it. This concept is easy enough to understand, and it encourages one to take a closer look at the breakdown of deaths across an entire society. The more you follow this rabbit hole down, the more interesting the numbers become. It may be somewhat morbid, but it is nonetheless very important.
The most popular twoarticles on the website of The Spectator over the weekend were by Dr John Lee, a recently retired NHS consultant and professor of pathology. He remarks that ‘’we have yet to see any statistical evidence for excess deaths, in any part of the world’’.
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To check this out, I looked at the British government’s own statistics on total deaths registered weekly across the UK. It shows that in the week ending on the 8th of March 2019, 10,898 people died in total in the UK. This year, in the week ending the 6th of March 2020, the equivalent figure was almost identical: 10,895. Make of that what you will. Statistics are currently available up to March 20, and while there is a lag between the spread of the virus and the resulting deaths, so far only about 1 percent of all mortalities bear any relation to coronavirus, and there is no visible spike. If nothing else, it helps to view the extent of the crisis in proportion – thousands of people die each week, and from the long-term view what we are seeing is not a plague, but a blip.
So when all is said and done, will any additional people die of the coronavirus? And what is meant by extra or additional?
Risk of dying
Understanding this requires a bit of lateral thinking, but it helps to remember that everyone on Earth has a terminal disease: being alive. We all have to go sometime.
Recording exactly how and when we do is a big part of the job of statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter. In a recent blog post, he outlined the concept of background risk. This is obtained by recording all of the people dying in any given year, at any given age. At its most simple, this is the percentage chance a person has of not reaching their next birthday, based solely on their age. Of course, that is not to say that if you are a 40-year-old man you have precisely a 0.2% chance of dying this year – the data are based on averages, and do not apply to individuals.
But nonetheless, across a country or given populations, the averages will be right, and it is possible to predict with great accuracy how many people will die in a given year. In the UK, for example, 600,000 people die annually. But wait a minute! A novel, brand-spanking new coronavirus is terrorising us all. Therefore surely we can expect more people to die this year than would in a normal year? And come year’s end we should be able, with simple arithmetic, to count exactly how many more there were.
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Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Evidence and Risk Communication at Cambridge University, won’t say exactly what he does think that figure will be. But he does say that if the deaths are towards the lower end of the current estimates, say at around 20,000 in the UK, Covid-19 will end up having ‘’a minimal impact on overall mortality for 2020’’. He told R4 that his findings showed, to his own professed astonishment, that if someone contracts the coronavirus, they’ve got almost exactly the same chance of dying over the ensuing few weeks as they would normally have of dying over the next year, no matter what their age or background health.
And depending on who you ask, that 20,000 figure might still be an overestimate. In fact, Spiegelhalter says that if extra people die it will likely be as a result of the knock-on effects of the lockdown, such as delayed normal health care, depression and isolation.
American political commentator Candace Owens has been Tweeting consistently about the apparent insignificance of Covid-19 deaths compared to overall trends. She tweeted about this issue in relation to New York City, where meaningless figures are being waved around by the media.
With all of the numbers being bandied about these days by various universities and governments, one would swear that they knew exactly what they were talking about. Make no mistake: this air of certainty is just a front. It is definitely too early to accurately gauge how many – if any – extra people will die because of coronavirus. It will depend on how four key pieces of information intersect.
- How many people will become infected by Covid-19?
- How much does Covid-19 increase the risk of death?
- Are deaths being properly recorded? Of those people who die having contracted coronavirus, are they dying from the virus, or just with it?
- Of those who died, how many had comorbidities that would have killed them this year anyway?
Since all of this began, the mainstream media have focused almost entirely on the first of these points, and stressing with an onslaught of material how important it is to slow the spread. The most extreme possible measures have been implemented to do that. Meanwhile, the three other points could end up comparing Covid-19 pretty much to the common flu. Only careful consideration by governments of all the key factors will result in the best future decisions.
It is hard to believe that when this all blows over, the damage that will have been done by the shutdown measures – to businesses, to civil liberties, to individual lives and, of course, to the global economy – could have been for nothing. Nonetheless, it seems entirely possible based on the present data. Remember above all to not take the figures the mainstream media throw at you at face value; there are lies, damned lies and statistics.