This blog originally appeared in this week’s edition of the Andersonstown News
Two of the biggest jolts to public thinking this past week about the Covad-19 pandemic came from Health Minister Robin Swann and An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Swann said that in the worst case scenario, 14,000 people here in the north could die. Varadkar said that a surge in Covid-19 cases was about to happen, and that the south would have 15,000 cases by the end of March.
Those are frightening figures, even if Varadkar is talking only about virus cases, not fatalities. But like all statistics, projected or real, they have to be taken in context.
Consider China, for instance, where it all began. They have experienced over 3,000 Covid-19 deaths. Italy has recently surpassed that, with over 4,000 dead. And Spain has surpassed that As I write this, more than 220 people in the US have died from the virus. And it’s going to get worse. Much worse. The latest number of deaths world-wide is well over 11,000. By the time you read this, the figures could have doubled. [Addendum: And they have]
But before you start shrieking and climbing the curtains, let’s take a breath and consider a few other lethal figures.
In 2018, 16,000 people in the US were murdered. In the same year, 40,000 American died in road crashes. And each year in the US, over 100,000 people die from air pollution. In China each year, the number who die from air pollution is at least 1.6 million Globally, the number who die from air pollution each year is 8.8 million.
So isn’t it odd that we obsess over the dangers – granted, the very real dangers – of Covid-19, but how many people worry about a relative living in the US because they fear they might be murdered? Or involved in a road fatality? Or die from air pollution? Yet their chances of one of those things happening to them are higher – much higher – than their dying from the coronavirus. Why is that?
A number of reasons. The most obvious one is that US murders (an average of 40+ deaths a day) or US road fatalities (an average of 109+ a day) or US pollution deaths (270 + a day) don’t feature in the headlines. The mainstream media around the world have just about given up on reporting any other news: all their air time and newspaper pages are focused on the spread of the virus. When we keep hearing about death by virus, we naturally stop thinking – if we ever began – about death by other means.
So why don’t the media report on the deadly toll of murder or road crashes or air pollution? Well, they do, but not nearly so much. Because in the US, as in the UK and the EU, cars and vehicles are big business. The majority of us have one. We’re prepared to be stuck in traffic jams, be given parking fines, pay tax and insurance and petrol, risk our lives and the lives of others, rather than be separated from our car. Cars are big business. Very big business.
As for pollution, that’s seen as being an inevitable part of modern life. Computers, iPads, smart phones, drones – they all require a great deal of energy to bring them into existence, and when they’re here and we’re fed up using them, they add to the clutter and plastic waste that is choking the planet. But they’re big business. Very big business.
The sad truth is, humanity is irrational. We delight in telling the story of the frog which swims happily in a saucepan as the water temperature is gradually increased; then eventually the frog goes belly-up. We never think of applying the obvious lesson to ourselves.
Here’s a sum to ponder. With China in lock-down during the pandemic, over 3000 Chinese people died from the coronavirus – and over 4,000 Chinese people didn’t die over the same period, because they had a compulsory three-month holiday from pollution.