The Innumeracy Of Moral Equivalency

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-09-15 22:00:00 No comments


In the early days of the COVID crisis, I heard a couple of goofballs in my near-circle making noises along the lines of, "It's just a flu." Bad enough, but when people start dying, one of them had the temerity to come up with this whopper: "X number of people die every year in car accidents, but you don't see folks freaking out about that!"

The only motive I can ascribe to uttering such a thing is that of whistling past the graveyard -- being confronted with something so overwhelming that it beggars a response, and so the only response you can come up with is to minimize it. (We've seen a lot of that lately, haven't we?) There are plenty of reasons why equivalencies like this are foolish, but I'll focus on one case: when people shift tracks and try to talk about deaths by other means ("If we really cared about lives, we'd do something about all those people dying," etc.).

In the discussion above, the other specific cause of death mentioned was car accidents. 36K deaths a year from traffic fatalities (as of 2018 stats) is nobody's idea of good, but that number has been in steady decline for decades as cars and roads get safer. It's not as if we aren't already doing something about it. Plus, auto safety is a known quantity. We understand what's involved.

(Side note: It's not just total fatalities that's in decline there, but the ratio of deaths to population that's also gone down. In 1980, we had 51K auto deaths, or 22.48 per 100,000 people. In 2018, it was 36,500, or 11.18 per 100K.)

200K deaths in one year from COVID-19 is terrible, because of the scale of the numbers and because our ignorance about it and our ineptitude at handling it amplified those things. We've only just begun to realize how the disease damages multiple functions in the body, and how that damage can be long-term and possibly permanent. It's not just a flu that passes in a week if you're lucky. The flulike symptoms are just a marker of all the other awful havoc it's wreaking. That's why concern about the deaths associated with COVID are more significant than the deaths associated with traffic accidents. And, based on what we do know now, a good deal of the death from COVID was preventable if we'd had anything like a suitable management infrastructure in place ahead of time (the way we did for SARS and MERS).

That's why the horror around COVID wasn't out of gamut. It was a disease about which we knew depressingly little, doing long-term damage, raging unchecked because too many of us refused to take the few measures needed to prevent its spread, and killing hundreds of thousands of people completely unnecessarily. And that's also why when people pull whataboutism in re other deaths, I don't listen to them.


Tags: statistics these troubled times


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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2020-09-15 22:00:00.

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