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Numbers are impersonal

The icy, calculated beauty of statistics

Updated

By DOM GALEON

People in queue for commute, photo by Jansen Romero

People in queue for commute, photo by Jansen Romero

Numbers have life; they’re not just symbols on paper. —Shakuntala Devi

They say numbers don’t lie. 

7.94 million cases.

435,700 deaths.

Almost every day, the whole world gets an update on those numbers—a tally, if you will, of humankind’s chances against this pandemic that has put most of the world in near suspended animation. 
We have learned to look at Covid-19 as numbers. 

It can’t be helped, I suppose. Numbers put everything in perspective. After all, numbers are the language of nature, to freely paraphrase a quote from Pope Benedict XVI

Numbers offer precision. They help us measure everything, putting things in scale. 

Yet it is this exact nature of numbers that make them also impersonal. While they help us grasp the impact of something like a deadly virus, numbers can also detach us from the morbid reality of this pandemic. It is very easy to dismiss statistics, especially when viewed relative to each other. For example, what’s 435,700 deaths from a virus compared to the 85 million who perished from the Second World War, or the 32 million who have died from HIV/AIDS, or the 25,000 annual estimated deaths worldwide from dengue? 

The roads and the streets were almost completely empty at the height of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ)

The roads and the streets were almost completely empty at the height of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ)

That is, until we realize that each of those numbers correspond to a person—someone’s father or mother, a parent’s child, a beloved grandparent, a cousin, an uncle, an aunt, a relative, a friend. 

7.94 million cases. 

435,700 deaths. 

It is a double-edged sword, really. While numbers do make the complex somewhat simpler, they can also numb us from the complexity of reality. After all, we cannot simply be cold and calculating when it comes to human lives. 

Sure, one is nothing compared to 435,662, or even just to 1,103. But one death is one too many, if we keep in mind that it is more than just a figure, a statistic to add in the daily tally of Covid fatalities, from cases fresh and late. 
One death is one life lost—someone’s father or mother, a parent’s child, a beloved grandparent, a cousin, an uncle, an aunt, a relative, a friend. 

So as we continue to count the cases and tally the deaths, may we not get lost in the numbers, as if etching sticks by fives on the walls of the unseen prison where the whole world is currently languishing.

Let each of the numbers matter. 

Only this way will we also get a better appreciation of the meaning of the 6,552 patients who have recovered in the country, or the 4.1 million people all over the world who have successfully fought against Covid—someone’s father or mother, a parent’s child, a beloved grandparent, a cousin, an uncle, an aunt, a relative, a friend. 

*All figures taken from the World Health Organization tally, as of June 16, 2020. 

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