What a difference a decade makes – we’re back to 1918

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The MacPherson Missive.” Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/

Back in 2011, the world was rocked by the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. It began in New York’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17 and within a few weeks had spread to more than 951 cities across 82 countries. The phrase, “We are the 99 per cent” became ubiquitous with Occupy, referring to the wealth inequality in the United States with a concentration of wealth among the top earning one per cent.

As we head into 2021, there’s an emerging conversation about another proportional comparison and it is truly sinister. It’s the conversation about the COVID-19 death rate, which has ominously turned into a debate about percentages.

If there is ever a terrible time to play mathmatical percentages, it’s when talking about humans dying. Sadly, there are many folks out there saying things we never ought to be seriously saying out loud in a civilized society. But here we are. This is 2020, may it soon be gone from our collective memory for the absolute disaster it was.

It’s the COVID-19 death rate, which is hovering around 1-3 per cent globally, that has people talking about the “99 percent.” This whole conversation should come with a trigger warning because it’s so disturbing.

There are a shocking number of people out there babbling publicly about said 1-3 per cent death rate and trying to minimize DEATHS as a proportional argument instead of a moral one. It’s the kind of callous, cynical, faithless conversation that is driven by a lack of courage and imagination in the face of a dangerous pandemic. It is the anti-heroism of our modern times and it makes a person want to look away in disgust.

We’ve heard it from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney who infamously said back in May, “The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I’ll remind the house the average life expectancy in the province is 82. In Canada, 95 percent of fatalities from Covid are from those over the age of 60, 80 percent are in care facilities and the risk of death from Covid for people under 60 is 0.0006 percent.” (Note: these numbers are now outdated)

This controversial statement earned him coverage on Fox News and even some praise on Twitter but did not go over quite as well here at home where seniors make up a large percentage of the United Conservative Party membership – and as we learned recently in a related story – a large percentage of the party’s donors.

This was back before Alberta’s pandemic response and Kenney’s approval rating sank into the COVID-19 abyss. He may have been praised by some on the right, but more people were outraged than approving of this manipulation of the numbers to try and downplay the severity of this health crisis. Not to mention, the outright dismissal of those over 82 years of age, who Kenney seemed to suggest were living on borrowed time anyway.

Perhaps it is time though, that we confront and chew over this idea of using percentages to replace actual deaths, so we can seriously spit the practice out into the trashcan of this decade. Not a day goes by where we don’t see someone on social media urging everyone to “stay calm” and consider how “low” the death rate is, raising the ire of the majority of people. We need to continue to quickly counter this obfuscation of the crisis.

Sadly, there is always some prominent figure willing to jump into the fray and bait people into this debate. And lately, this is getting much worse.

Recently, Conservative Member of Parliament, Rachael Harder of Alberta took the whole thing one step further in a Facebook post for the ages. Sharing an op-ed article from the Toronto Sun by Anthony Furey, Harder pulled the following quote from his column and posted it:

“Ten. That’s the number of otherwise healthy people who have died from COVID-19 in Alberta since the beginning of the pandemic.

This may come as a surprise to people both in Alberta and around the country who are following the second wave of COVID-19 as it sends daily case counts rising in many Canadian provinces. One gets the sense that things are much worse.”

She appears to support a parsing of the numbers even further by only counting “otherwise healthy” people that died. Those other 300+ people were not “healthy” and don’t count? If you’re just hearing about this, it is probably sending shivers down your spine, as it did mine. Even if she was only quoting another person’s op-ed, the implication here is that she feels this idea is worth highlighting and sharing. As an elected official, in a position of authority over others, this is especially concerning.

Furey went on to conclude in his editorial:

“It’s troubling that the politicians and health officials don’t reference this sort of important data more often. Instead, the likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford like to offer alarmist rhetoric about rising case counts across the country. Their theatrical lines get turned into headlines, which frighten Canadians. What we’re learning more and more though, is that the data tells a much less alarming story.”

So, the argument here seems to be that we shouldn’t get “alarmist” or “theatrical” and frighten Canadians. A mere exclusion of some real people, the application of mathematical wizardry and voila!, we can all sleep better at night. How neat and tidy this idea is. And how horrifying.

The 1918 flu pandemic had a similar mortality rate of 2.5 per cent (actually greater than). One hundred years later, even with our advances in medicine, here we are again. No one should be quoting percentages as a reason to calm down or not be alarmed. No one.

This is simply not a time to play the percentage game. Proportional calculations, of course, have a place but let’s not lose our minds, or more importantly, our humanity. The current mortality rate of 2.5 per cent in Thailand means 60 deaths, while in India the same percentage translates to 132,162 people dead. Percentages take the focus away from the real impact. All deaths are terrible, don’t forget, even though some politicians would have you try to put them out of your mind.

There is value in talking about percentages in some instances. In Canada, for example, we have a mortality rate of 3.5 per cent, which translates to 11,314 deaths. Some Canadians may be surprised to know the United States actually has a lower mortality rate of 2.2 per cent, which is 252,535 deaths. But when you talk about it terms of real people who lost their lives, you get an idea of how terrible of a problem this is for America. But it can also point to a problem in Canada, even though our total number of deaths are lower.

Percentages should never be twisted to mask the severity of a real problem, which is what some people are trying to do.

Eleven thousand Canadians dying from COVID-19 is a horrible tragedy. Don’t quote me the 96.5 per cent survival rate and expect to be celebrated as a hero. Congratulations on your math skills but we have computers for that. Maybe you need go back to school and work on your empathy and compassion. The lack of these skills in some people, including some powerful people, is not serving us well.

Jody MacPherson is a professional communicator, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and is not otherwise healthy.

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