Making Sense of the Numbers

According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 35,044 COVID-related deaths in the UK as of May 1. We can argue, if we are on one side of the argument, that this undercounts the number of deaths due to COVID because it counts only the deaths that had COVID listed on the death certificate. If we are on the other side, we will probably argue that this overstates the effect of COVID-19 because there were people who were an inch away from death’s door due to some terminal illness but tested positive for COVID-19 (generally following an outbreak in a nursing home), or worse, seemed like they might have had COVID-19, so it was listed as a factor on their death certificates. For the purposes of this debate, however, I’d say that the age proportions are pretty stable. If they are off, they are likely to be off in a way that undercounts the very old, which would just strengthen my argument.

32,542 of the people who died were over 60. That’s 93% of the total. We’ve been told this—the virus overwhelmingly affects the old—yet we, helped by the constant string of anecdotes rather than statistics on the news—have swallowed the idea that COVID is an equal-opportunity killer. And, by the policies we’ve decided to enact, we’ve probably made it more likely that some younger people (most likely with preexisting conditions) will die. What do I mean by this? I’ll use the strategy embraced by the media and politicians to explain—anecdote. On April 5, a 47-year-old woman, Belly Mujinga, who worked in the ticket office at Victoria Station, died of COVID-19. She and her coworker had been spat on by an irate customer who said he had the virus. They both fell ill with COVID-19, most likely from that incident, although, of course, since they’d had contact with many people that day and during that time period, it’s impossible to say with certainty. Her coworker recovered, but Mujinga did not. She had “an underlying respiratory condition,” but had been forced by a staff shortage to work out on the concourse instead of behind the ticket window where she usually worked. By all accounts, Mujinga was an unusually diligent worker, who kept going into work when some coworkers did not. Perhaps, if the government hadn’t been forced into a position of shutting everything down, they could have targeted people like Mujinga, far more vulnerable, and paid for them to self-isolate. And other people may have been more likely to go into work. This, of course, is all conjecture, but I do think it serves to illustrate the fact that the policy of lockdown we’ve more or less followed is no more perfect than doing absolutely nothing would be. Over the course of the next several blogs, I’ll be using numbers from the Office of National Statistics to make some points and connections that more journalists should be making. I think it’s always better to have more knowledge than it is to have less, and watching Victoria Derbyshire interview another 65-year-old bemoan the fact that her 97-year-old mother (who had  lung cancer) has succumbed “to the virus” is not going to increase that knowledge.

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Numbers

  1. Would it be possible for you to look at US statistics as well? Today, in New Jersey, it was reported that “the massive spike in tests reported on Monday comes not from some heroic, one-time effort by the state to expand testing. Instead, it came from the delayed reporting of negative test results by some of the labs working with the state.”

    What our governor fails to understand is that many essential businesses need accuracy in the reporting of these numbers to make sound decisions on when to safely bring our employees back to work. Those of us who listen to the daily briefings were questioning the results on negative tests due to the disparity in the numbers. It was quickly evident that these numbers were wrong but no one on the governor’s dream team panel seemed the question the findings.


    1. I don’t think I have enough information to add NJ numbers, but as we go forward, if US numbers help make the point, I’ll add them. But I do want this to be more about the big picture than getting into criticisms of particular governors or states’ actions, and I think everybody has a share of the blame for the current state of things. However, I welcome your articles and statistics in response, and would love to see the debate.


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