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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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about me bible literature love philosophy Shakespeare theology trust

The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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faith harry potter leadership spiritual life struggle theology trust

How Harry Potter Teaches Trust in God

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My daughter posted the following to her Facebook account in 2008. I asked her for permission to repost it on my website because I liked it so much. With her approval I made some minor editorial changes. I also moved it from my website to my blog.

Many of you may know that I enjoy making sport of modern literary commentary and religious conservatives all at once by forming arguments for parallels between that king of the wizarding world, Harry Potter, and that King of kings, Jesus Christ. In general these assertions are all in jest, but lately as I have been reading the seventh book for the second (and much more attentive) time, I have caught glimpses into Harry’s tortured psyche: the jumble of regret over his lost life with his near perfect parents with anger at Dumbledore for dying and leaving him all alone—I realized I had a certain affinity with the angst-ridden teen.

Harry’s hand brushed the old snitch through the mokeskin and for a moment he had to fight the temptation to pull it out and throw it away. Impenetrable, unhelpful, useless like everything else Dumbledore had left behind—And his fury at Dumbledore broke over him now like lava, scorching him inside, wiping out every other feeling…Dumbledore had left them to grope in the darkness, to wrestle with unknown and undreamed of terrors, alone and unaided: Nothing was explained, nothing was given freely…”

Harry is upset to say the least. He cannot understand why Dumbledore had not given him the whole picture, explained to him exactly how he was to carry out his quest. Add to that the fact that Dumbledore avoided certain intimacies with Harry regarding his past, and you get a bitter and incensed adolescent trying to make sense of clues left him by a seemingly benevolent, wise-and-powerful-beyond-all-reason wizard. Sound familiar? Well it does to me. I can count on one hand the number of days it has been since I last raised a frustrated fist to heaven and demanded of that all powerful and unspeakably good God whom I serve that He explain to me what His plan is. I understand Harry’s frustration, and I relate it to my own. How many times have I looked at situations in my life and said, “Where is God?” And I think if life is supposed to be so hard and our quest for holiness so unattainable, why didn’t God give us more clear direction?

I have heard the bible described as a roadmap and been told that all you have to do is read it and you will be able to navigate safely through life. Well, I don’t know what translation those pastors and youth leaders had, but mine is certainly anything but. When I read the Bible, I find a series of confusing stories and poems accompanied by even more confusing and often conflicting teaching. That road map does not show me how to get from point A (our birth) to point B (our death). It shows me people’s lives and snippets of prophecies and commandments that I often struggle to apply to my daily life. They are like the clues Dumbledore left for Harry. They confuse and baffle me, and it is only through moments of seemingly divine revelation that I ever feel I understand anything about God or His plan for my life.

So it’s easy to get frustrated—to shout and grumble, grow bitter, and decide your own plans are better. Later in the book Harry decides he is better off seeking a powerful wand that will win any duel in which it is engaged. Since Harry knows he will one day have to face Lord Voldemort—only the most powerful dark wizard of all time—it doesn’t seem like the dumbest of ideas. He abandons the quest given him by Dumbledore and seeks only to satisfy his desire.

Here, again, I see Harry’s point. I want more than anything to effect change in the world. I know what I am passionate about: feeding the hungry; advocating for the oppressed; Africa—the list goes on. And I could easily form a very simple and clear plan that would allow me to act in those areas of passion. I could join the Peace Corp. Or I could drop out of school and become a full-time missionary. To be certain, there are days when I question God’s leading me to Iowa of all places. I feel like my precious time is being wasted as I study concepts, theory and theology. And I am tempted to strike out on my own, head for El Salvador, and live a brave and untamed life.

But in the end I must choose as Harry does. Harry, in a moment of clarity, decides wholeheartedly to follow Dumbleore’s instructions and his alone. Though he has the chance to both seize the wand and pursue the quest, Harry chooses only to seek Dumbledore’s quest—a move which, incidentally, could cost him his life. The decision that Harry makes is straightforward. It does not come out of a supernatural encounter with Dumbledore in which the dead man mystically appears before Harry bidding him to do only as he says. Rather, Harry makes this decision based purely on trust in that ever so wise and perceptive wizard.

Similarly, though I find myself longing to, I can not demand signs and wonders from God or even clear and precisely laid out directions. I must simply choose trust. I must choose to trust that God loves me even while, as Harry so often does, I doubt it. Because it is the trust and relationship that God wants of us—not blind obedience. He wants us to rely on him not just for direction but for life—for our very well-being. In doing this He has made Himself indispensable. So kudos to you, Harry Potter. Way to trust your benevolent powerful-and-wise-beyond-all-reason wizard. I will choose to trust mine.

©2008 Elizabeth Wasylik, all rights reserved.

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