As We Face a Crisis
A look at comparative numbers on causes of death around the world
On May 4, 1940, my father embarked on the first voyage of the Queen Mary, since her conversion to a troop ship, to sail to the Middle East to fight the Axis powers. On board were 5,000 other members of the AIF – the Australian Imperial Force. My mother, like many others, followed the ship in a small boat as far as the Sydney Heads, to wave farewell. Nobody then believed that the crisis would be over soon and that the boys would come home by Christmas: just getting there took several weeks and was fraught with danger.
My mother told me years later that most people were pessimistic about the prospect of victory. In the following year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sank the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, conquered Hong Kong and then Singapore. My father was gravely wounded at El Alamein and never fully recovered his fitness, but most of his comrades went on to fight in the Pacific War. The situation looked utterly dire, despite the huge injection of American power. Australia planned for a Japanese invasion, and on the other side of the world death rained down every day on cities like London.
The bravery of those who went to war and those who stayed behind fills us with awe. The more so when we consider that the First World War had ended just 22 years previously, and everybody recalled only too well how many of their dear ones had never come home.
We are now facing another crisis. It is right to take special measures, for our own sakes and for the good of those around us, to avoid infection. But it is also right to question whether the severity of the measures will be too costly for some people to bear. Lives may be saved, but many will lose their livelihoods in the inevitable recession that must ensue. The media feed this frenzy, whether in honest zeal for reporting the truth or driven by a kind of lust for The Big Story. They love statistics, but they rarely provide a context by supplying comparative numbers.
Here’s a context, from OurWorldinData.org. According to this source, 56 million people died throughout the world in 2017. That’s about 160,000 every day. Assuming it’s trustworthy, this fine resource allows one to search for causes of death, by percentage, nation by nation, over the whole period from 1970 almost to the present.
Heart failure and cancer are clearly the big killers everywhere, followed by a whole range of other bodily ailments. Deaths as a consequence of human activity come surprisingly far down the scale in the eight countries whose stats I examined. One of the biggest killers is suicide: the lowest rate I found was 0.51% in Nigeria, the highest 2.37 in Russia. Homicide varies enormously from 0.06 in Britain to 0.19 in Australia, 0.7 in the US and a horrifying 4.7 in Brazil. Everywhere the car can be lethal: 0.97 of Australian deaths were caused by road accidents, 1.55 in the US, and 3.43 in Brazil (Brazil’s not looking like a good place to be!).
Fatalities due to communicable diseases such as coronavirus do not appear as a separate category but are no doubt masked and subsumed under such groupings as “respiratory diseases,” which accounted for 7% of the world’s deaths. I cannot forbear to mention that deaths due to climate change are off-scale, unless we believe that Russia’s decline from 0.88% to 0.55% in deaths from 1970 to 2017, in the category “Heat related – hot and cold exposure,” means that fewer people died of cold.
Here’s another statistic: During last night’s SBS news, which was almost entirely given over to The Virus, a brief announcement by the Save the Children fund reported that 15,000 children “die needlessly” every day.
So, let’s try to keep things in proportion. First World governments that scramble to allocate 1% or less of their GDPs to foreign aid suddenly find that they can put their hands on billions and trillions of dollars to bail out those who will suffer in the economic backlash of the Virus. And so they should – I do not dispute that. But could they not stretch a point to help the world’s poorest? Hunger and thirst are far bigger killers, day-by-day and with no end in sight, than any of the bugs that we face during this period of high risk.