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  • Writer's pictureNeil Datson

Covid, and some thoughts on the news

How does the ordinary person, ‘the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus’ decide what to believe and what to distrust in the great flood of information that is filling the news about Covid? How to react to it? How to make sense of it? The government seems to be floundering. Some epidemiologists are predicting a ‘second spike’ while others suggest that it as good as over. Who is right, and who wrong? We cannot possibly know, and so the best course is for every individual to come to his or her own conclusions.

The first thing to do is to throw out all information that is not fact – verifiable fact. That means at least 99% of the news, from whatever source. Newspapers, broadcasters and websites may claim to be only telling you the facts but regardless of their political stance or source of funding they all have one thing in common: they all want you to consult them tomorrow. No news, no audience. No audience, no news. So they always select what to report and they always confuse fact with opinion.

Many pieces of information which – at first glance – appear to be fact can swiftly be revealed to be merely opinion. A good example is the number of people who are dying of Covid. Some people who are recorded as ‘dying of Covid’ have only ‘died with Covid’ – not the same thing at all. To some extent distortion is inevitable. Doctors have to record a cause of death. While that may be a minor point and only responsible for a minor distortion, it is said that some people who have made full recoveries only to die weeks or even months later are being recorded as ‘dying of Covid’. If that is true it is a major distortion. But is it true? I don’t know. Best ignore it, and stick to fact.

So what facts are available? Not many, but enough to help anybody understand how people are being misled. Every week the Office for National Statistics publishes the number of people who have died in England and Wales. The figures are on their website. They break them down according to age, sex and cause of death, although, as suggested above, the ‘cause of death’ is only an opinion – albeit an educated one – and may not signify anything of importance. For example, about 85% of the those who die are 65 or older, but doctors do not record people as dying of ‘old age’. To live is to be mortal and we’re all going to die of something. Pity the poor doctor who has to come up with a ‘cause of death’, especially if it can be turned into a news headline.

So what do their statistics tell us about Covid, or the number of people who have died of it? Well, nothing for certain, if only for the reasons explained above, but they do tell us the number who have died: died, that is, of something or other.

In 2019 a total of 527,234 people died in England and Wales, a weekly average of 10,139 through the whole year. There were seasonal fluctuations. In the eight weeks ending 1st March an average of 11,666 died a week, the highest eight week average in the year. In the eight weeks ending 30th August the equivalent figure was 9,012, the lowest of the year. It is hardly surprising that you have more chance of dying in winter than in summer. Turning to the current year, the highest ‘pre-Covid’ average was for the eight weeks ending 21st February, when it reached 11,943. It then fell away, and came down to 10,911 on 27th March, much in line with 29th March 2019, when it stood at 10,945.

Then Covid struck, and the number people who were dying every week rose steeply. For the week ending 22nd May the eight week average reached 17,090. From that point it started falling. By 24th July (the most recent week for which statistics are available) it was down to 9,393, only just higher than the equivalent period last year, when it stood at 9,373. So despite the ‘Covid pandemic’ almost exactly the same number of people died in June and July 2020 as in June and July 2019.

Given that England and Wales have a total population of close to sixty million it is inevitable that thousands will die every week. As we get older the ailments that we all suffer from are more likely to prove fatal than when we are in the prime of life. That is not news. Whether or not there will be a ‘second spike’ nobody can know; to predict one is not news either. Meanwhile the current number of deaths is not news; it is as normal as it has ever been. You will have to wait a very long time for it to fall much from here. My best guess would be not this century, for starters. If there is a crisis it is one of the public being misled by government ineptitude and media distortions, not one of public health.

This article was first published on 11 August 2020 by Comment Central


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