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current events death mathematics numbers politics probability science statistics trust

Why Stories Circulate about Covid-19 Deaths

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I’ve seen several posts on Facebook claiming that deaths of relatives or friends have been falsely attributed to covid-19 when in fact they were due to some other cause. These anecdotes represent a misunderstanding of the way statistics work and how data for statistics is collected. Of course, researchers want as accurate a count as possible for the number of deaths caused by Covid-19. But that kind of accuracy is harder than it sounds.

At first researchers were counting only deaths where the person who died had tested positive for Covid-19. They soon realized however, that they were under-counting the number of Covid-19 deaths. How did they realize that? They knew what the death rate in a particular place was prior to the pandemic. For example, if a city typically had 1,000 deaths in 30 days, and suddenly the number jumps to 3,000 but only 1,500 of those were due to patients who tested positive for Covid-19, then that left 500 deaths unaccounted for. So researchers decided to broaden the criteria for recording deaths as attributable to Covid-19. They decided to included deaths where symptoms were similar to those caused by Covid-19. They also included deaths even when the patient tested negative.

Why would someone who tested negative for covid-19 still be listed as a victim of it? Testing is not 100% accurate. Data on accuracy of the most widely used Covid-19 test is not publicly available, but some estimates range as high as 30% for false negatives, meaning that 3 out of 10 people who test negative for the disease actually have it. Even with a test that is 100% accurate under ideal conditions, real-world conditions can skew results. Many conditions can affect the amount of virus in a specimen collected by a swab. The most widely used test has close to a 100% accuracy for positive results, the the accuracy for negative results is uncertain and can vary depending on many factors. This is why some people who have died after testing negative for covid-19 are nevertheless listed as victims of covid-19. As long as they had symptoms consistent with the infection, they might very well have covid-19 listed on their death certificate. Of course, casting a broader net for data also means that there will be instances of people being listed as having died from covid-19 who actually died of other causes. Researchers make every effort to ensure this does not happen, but no procedure is foolproof. However, if the number of deaths identified as having been caused by Covid-19 matches the uptick in deaths overall, then it’s a pretty safe assumption that the data is pretty clean.

Because many people are suspicious of our government or the media or liberal elites—none of which are actually sufficiently monolithic to carry off a genuine conspiracy—and of expert authority in general, these types of stories gain currency on social media. Some may be true, but they usually do not contain sufficient detail to validate them. Even if they are true, they are generally offered by people who are not experts in determining cause of death.

So before you share one of these anecdotes about a suspicious Covid-19 death, consider not just whether it is true, but also whether it undermines the very institutions we have put in place to help us deal with infectious disease epidemics. While there are plenty of politicians ready to make hay out of crisis events, the experts and researchers who do the actual work genuinely care about producing good quality studies that advance our understanding of the virus and how it spreads. They are not out to get you.

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death family fear injustice jesus kindness memory myth sin suffering theology

Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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adult boredom children death hell life memory novelty

All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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