Updated: Jun 17, 2020
According to CarbonBrief, from early February to the middle of March this year, China’s carbon pollution dropped by 250 million metric tons as a direct result of measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID 19. To put this in perspective that’s over half the UK’s annual carbon emissions. Stanford University Professor Marshall Burke found this intriguing, so he ran a model estimating how many lives were saved as a direct result of these reductions. The output from his research suggested that 4,000 children under the age of five and 73,000 people over the age of seventy would have perished had it not been for the decrease in carbon pollution. Coronavirus to date in China has claimed approx 3,300 souls, with approx 121,000 people losing their lives to the virus worldwide.
As someone whose job entails researching data, my belief is that to draw direct comparison to these numbers is as flawed as it is insensitive. One is a simulation based on a predicted outcome using historical trends and patterns and the other is an estimate reliant on individual governments and organisations and their abilities and willingness to report accurately. But it’s also important not to ignore Burke’s findings. Indeed, with an estimated 100 out of every 100,000 people dying each year in the UK from air pollution related illnesses (that’s about 64,000 a year), his findings are both interesting and valuable.
COVID 19 has brought death to the fore like no other disease in our lifetime. It’s ability to rapidly spread throughout the world has left the global community with an open wound we’re struggling to tend. As most of us are aware by now, the virus passes from host to host through fluid droplets then debilitates the respiratory system. This is an effective way of attacking a species that likes to cohabit together and breathe air. Physically, the virus has our number at the moment. But one of main impacts it’s had on our mentality is that it’s heightened our sensitivity levels when it comes to mortality.
I remember seeing a scientific experiment on TV once; I’m sure Robert Winston was involved. It centred around a family taking turns at placing their faces in a bowl of water and holding their breath for as long as they could to win prizes for individual family members. The greater the time, the larger the prize. The difference between the time the mother achieved for her daughter as opposed to her nephew was significant, suggesting that fight or flight instincts varied depending on her emotional attachment to the recipient. What the experiment didn’t test, at least I don’t remember it doing this, was how long someone would hold their breath to win a prize for themselves.
So with both Burke and Winston’s discoveries in mind, I decided to look at other causes of death in the UK and try to understand why COVID 19 had exposed an apathy in our social conscience towards one of our greatest fears.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in the UK alone in 2018 we had:
7,551 deaths from alcohol related illnesses
6,507 deaths from suicide
1,770 deaths from road traffic accidents
787 deaths by homicide
69,323 from Alzheimer’s or dementia (England & Wales only and the single biggest killer of people in the UK).
Staggeringly, the department also estimated that 22% of all recorded deaths were considered avoidable. That’s 138,293 lives out of the 616,014. Or, to put it another way, the whole of Inverness being wiped out, twice.
It’s natural for humans to relate aspects of life and death to numbers and statistics. We’re taught this from a young age and much of our cognitive thinking consists of numerical and mathematical calculations. From the clock to the phone to the keyboard, from crossing the road, hitting a tennis ball or assessing attractiveness, we’re number crunching constantly. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that one of the main reasons we’ve become so desensitised to people dying is because we risk assess the cause of someone’s passing against the likelihood of that cause taking our own life, then we act accordingly. Subjective and narrow, yes, but not too many Sherpas worry about being eaten by a shark.
The overarching lesson taken from the above is that, no matter what type of research we undertake, we must continually challenge our emotional and intellectual prejudices whilst rigorously collating and interrogating a wide range of data sources. The true value analysis offers is, more often than not, enhanced understanding and as a subsequence, the ability to positively influence future outcomes. Research has to constantly strive for objectivity and with our volume switches clearly turned to 11 on COVID 19 at the moment, this example demonstrates a presence of absence when it comes to our capacity to produce a balanced, consistent, collective evaluation of the subject matter. Each of the reasons above differ considerably in their root causes and compositions yet all produce the same results or projected results.
George Orwell wrote, “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” Wise words. You don’t have to look far these days to see evidence to support Orwell’s claim. However, I like to interpret his words as a call to action rather than a sad acceptance of what is. The more comprehensively we conduct our research, the stronger the foundation we lay for future generations to build upon. We owe it to them to tell best truth we possibly can, and we most certainly owe it to every person now a statistic in this article.
David Sheret is the co-founder and Executive Director of Archer Knight (Holdings) Limited. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org