“There is strength in numbers.”
This well-worn aphorism usually calls to mind images of armies, teams or other large groups of people undertaking a challenge, it reminds us as well that statistics allow us to count, to document, and to understand. Despite Mark Twain’s feelings on the subject, the value of statistics is nearly undisputed in today’s world – we use and rely on them far more today than Twain could ever imagine. Indeed, COVID19 has proven to be a real-life, real-time education in statistics and epidemiology for both professionals and the general public. Only a few months ago, news story on “flattening the curve” would probably have been taken as reporting on local roadways, but now there are daily stories in the news on the latest pandemic statistics.
These numbers are clearly important. They help those responsible for decisions to understand what is transpiring, and hopefully help guide wise decisions. They help those of us on the front line think about what may lie ahead and how to prepare at work and at home. They also can, still, obscure just a bit the underlying truth they represent.
It is startling enough to see the daily increase in world-wide case-counts of COVID19. It becomes even more staggering to consider these numbers when one stops for just a moment and thinks about what each one of those numbers represents. We must recall that each of those “cases” is an individual, a person with a unique story, with a lifetime’s worth of hopes, fears, uncertainties, and anticipations. Each of those “cases” is also someone in a network of relationships and interdependency – someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife, or sibling. Most importantly, each of those “cases” is a unique child of God, someone so uniquely valued that Jesus said, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” [Luke 12:7].
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It goes beyond just the raw numbers. When preparing a lecture on COVID19 last month, I had to refresh myself on some basic epidemiology, including the significance of R0 [“the average number of people who will catch a disease from one contagious person”].
As a doctor I find it useful to know that COVID19 is considerably more infectious than seasonal influenza, but as a father and a husband I am reminded that an R0 of 2-3.5 means that if I contract COVID19, I will most likely sicken at least half of my family. The epidemiological statistic of R0 tells me about how the pandemic may spread, and it informs an understanding of caring for my “own household.” [1 Timothy 5:9].
Flattened curves, while desirable epidemiologically, also tell us that our adherence or non-adherence to social distancing and all sorts of other nuisances can make the difference between life and death for family, for friends and neighbors, and especially for some of the most vulnerable in our society. This was an important concept to be reminded of early in the pandemic as schools, businesses, sports, and nearly all other activities were either closed or drastically curtailed – in essence, we took a sledgehammer to our economy in an effort to halt the truly “viral” spread of COVID19.
Now, as we both tire of the pandemic and long for normalcy, it becomes even more important than ever to recall implications of our numbers. Jobs are important. Education is important. Community activity and engagement are important. But those who will be impacted adversely by a premature return to “normalcy” are not just numbers. They are uniquely individual people who are all children of God.
Statistics are useful, statistics can be descriptive and perhaps even predictive, but fundamentally we need to remember that behind each and every number we count, lies a unique person with their own individual story.
Statistics are people, too.
An earlier version of this article was first published on BMJ Opinion.