Covid-19 by the numbers

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Historians of science debate it, but many consider the first example of “true science”—defined as the effort to numerically describe natural world phenomena—to be when the ancient Greeks calculated the ratios of musical tone intervals. The Greeks discovered that a string of the same thickness and tension as another but twice its length vibrated at a frequency an octave lower, meaning the ratio of an octave is 2:1. The ratio of a perfect fourth was calculated to be 4:3, a perfect fifth 3:2, and a tone (whole step) 8:9.

This process of quantifying intervalic harmony came to structure the Greeks’ entire way of thinking, extending beyond the strings of the lyre all the way to the heavens. They soon formed an early version of astronomy in which the planets were thought to exist in various degrees of harmony with one another. Sometimes consonant and other times dissonant, the planets orbited at differing harmonic intervals above or below another. Venus and Earth were a minor third apart.

This is hailed as scientific thinking—translating reality into numbers, identifying patterns, and inferring broad conclusions. But describing the distance between Earth and Venus as a minor third, we now know, is not science but poetry. While the ratios have proved correct and useful for musical tones, they are a useless framework for analyzing astronomical patterns. Yet numbers have that kind of seductive power. Their seeming objectivity projects a certainty that is both comforting and dangerous.

I’ve been thinking about the ancient Greeks as we continue to battle Covid-19. We are deep in the process of describing this novel virus using our own modern quantitative language. The pandemic has brought with it a dizzying array of numbers to decipher: total confirmed cases, running death toll, case fatality rate, R0 (the rate of infection), growth rate, daily test totals, 7 day case average, incubation period, six feet of social distancing, and at-risk age ranges are just some of the most common metrics. Obviously, vital research is being conducted using these quantities, and this is not meant as an anti-intellectual or conspiratorial screed. But some days I feel like we are the ancient Greeks, staring at the sky and charting the planets using major and minor musical scales.

Almost every day, I visit the CDC Covid Data Tracker, which collects all these numbers and more. The interactive graphs and quantitative specificity exude an air of authority. Yet, crucially, each of these metrics is an approximation, a best guess. We will never know the true totals and rates. No matter how many decimal places we account for and log-adjusted rates we calculate, numbers are crude, blunt instruments that can only ever describe the vague contours of the pandemic.

Now that we are beginning to open the country back up I worry that our obsession with numbers may be leveraged for callous justifications. Although numbers help us stay vigilant, they can also be wielded to justify reckless action. Blind confidence in numbers has the potential to transform a rubric of compassion and caution into a cost-benefit ledger sheet of risk vs. reward, inoculating us from the horror of death by cloaking it in relative and impersonal percentages.

I often think about my personal relationship to the the Covid-19 numbers, how they factor into my current state of mind. Normally, when I’m dealing with quantities, the smaller the number the more intimate, and the less abstract, it is. I’m able to see things few in number as themselves, not as quantities. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic,” as they say. But this pandemic is peculiar. As the numbers add up, and the death toll rises, I feel less distant from this. Instead I feel the pandemic closing in on me; the mounting case figures feels like I’m sinking into quicksand.

I also think about the political significance of the numbers. We’re over 135,000 deaths now and confirmed cases are once again rising. Who’s to blame for all this senseless death? The president? Governors? Mayors? Individual Americans? Will anyone be tried for crimes? I happen to believe the more we focus on the personal transgressions of individual Americans the more we are distracted from holding the true perpetrators—politicians—accountable. They must pay us to fight this thing, or else we won’t fight it, not because we are bad people but because without actual relief such as paid leave, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and mortgage/rent suspension, fighting the virus by staying home currently amounts to a different kind of death—financial ruin.

Finally, I think about the numbers yet to enter the equation. When there is a vaccine, a new number will emerge as the most salient: how many people get it and who. There won’t be enough for everyone, we know that much. And if I know America, someone will be turning a huge profit. I fear the calculus to come.

Numbers are prisms. Held right so the light hits at the correct angle and a whole spectrum becomes visible. Held wrong, or stowed away in darkness, and the prism is empty and blank, nothing inside. Numbers are better than nothing, and I believe all policy decisions going forward should draw on the best numbers we’ve got. Once we do get a handle on this thing, though, I hope we are careful not to confuse harmony with astronomy.