Perhaps you are not as morbid as I am, but I have been checking this website regularly. It is a running total of the coronavirus cases, tests, deaths and recoveries around the world. It also breaks these numbers down by country which allows one to compare different countries and the number of deaths they have had, the number of tests they are doing and then compare them per million population.

The headline of the website is the global number of cases identified (currently 1.35 million) the global number of deaths (just shy of 75,000) and the global number of people who have recovered (nearly 280,000). These figures are something to hold onto and are tangible. They suggest something measurable that either show the continued spread of the virus or, hopefully, its tapering off.

Even if you are not regularly checking Worldometer like me, you will be getting constantly bombarded with updates of how many people have the virus and how many have died in the mainstream media. These figures are always going upwards and help to create a sense of panic and unease which make us more compliant and ready to accept unprecedented infringements on our civil liberties and unprecedented self-inflicted destruction of our economies. There are manifold issues with these figures however. And this should give one pause before accepting uncritically the feeling that the day of doom is upon us and that we should do something!!

First, how people are being counted as dying due to the virus seems to be debateable. Are the people dying with Covid19? Or from Covid19? Or are they elderly, with significant underlying health issues and have been pushed over the edge by the disease? As they would with a seasonal flu? This seems to have been the case with New Zealand’s only coronavirus death so far.

Secondly, if we had a counter of any particular cause of death for a country or the whole world, would similar amounts of panic also occur? After all, 150,000 people die a day from all causes around the world. About 1800 Italians die every day from all causes. Perhaps the numbers of those dying should be put into some context: “today 200 people died of coronavirus in this country. X number of people also died on the roads. Y number of people died of a stroke. Etc etc”

Relatedly, it seems that the true scale of the disaster will be known when we can figure out the number of extra deaths that the virus has brought to the world over and above the number of people that would usually die in a particular country in a particular week. That is, how many of the 75,000 people who have died from coronavirus are people who would be expected to die normally over this timeframe? How many would have died from flu normally but died from this one instead?

Thirdly, the number of cases so far is a function of testing. How many people actually have the disease is unknown. The death rate could be far far lower than we currently think. Further, we could be locking down countries that are already well on their way to herd immunity.

Fourthly, have the various governments that have shut down their countries’ economies done any modelling on the long term financial impacts of these decisions? The increase in government debt (already at historically high levels in many places)? The lost jobs? The disrupted supply chains? The businesses that have been destroyed? The life savings that have evaporated?

Have they then figured out the impact that this will have on their people’s mental and physical health? Have they figured out how they will pay for health services in the future with a weakened economy and what health impact that will have?

The British writer Toby Young has written an excellent piece touching on some of these issues and has crunched the numbers on whether the British government has overreacted to the crisis. It is an interesting read and it comes from someone who has skin in the game: he was bedridden with the virus when he wrote it!

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...