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Monks Hill Books Blog

Books and Covid-19

Books, as many will agree, can be very useful during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.  My daughters gave me, last Christmas, Factfulness by Hans Rosling.  Basically it tells you that things are getting better, not worse, and encourages you to look more closely at the actual statistics, rather than using your own out-of-date prejudices.

However, I am also a (semi-) retired pensions lawyer – and one of the delights of being a pensions lawyer is that you are sent all sorts of updates relating to pensions.  One of these comes each week from the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI).  This is a body set up to provide actuaries with the information they need to calculate how much money the employers (which includes the government) need to set aside to pay for the pensions promised to their employees.

As part of its weekly reports, the CMI gives a figure for ‘excess deaths’, that is, the number of deaths exceeding the figure for the same week in the previous year.  Naturally the Covid-19 outbreak has played havoc with these figures this year.  As at 7 July 2020, the CMI now say we have had in the UK 62,500 more deaths since the start of the pandemic than if mortality rates were similar to those experienced in 2019.

That sounds an appalling number – like 125 jumbo jets crashing.  Very tragic.  However, the average number of deaths per week in the UK in 2019 was 12,045.  This is a normal part of life.  You can’t live without dying at some time.

Besides, simply quoting figures of thousands of deaths makes the news sound worse than it might otherwise be.  You also have to take into account the size of the country’s population.

What is significant is the number of deaths as a proportion of the total UK population.  As Hans Rosling has pointed out in his book, this proportion has been going down since records began.  In the UK, the proportion reached an all-time low in 2011 with 0.87% of the population dying.  It has been rising a little since then, which may reflect the annual flu vaccine being ineffective one year, to say nothing of cuts in NHS funding and a worrying rise in obesity.

But if we add the CMI’s figure of 62,500 ‘excess deaths’ on to the 2019 figure for total deaths, and divide the result by the total UK population, you get a total percentage of just under 1.03%.  Bear in mind this is a worst-case scenario.  The CMI acknowledge that a large proportion (some say over 90%) of the deaths attributed to Covid-19 were of people who had some pre-existing medical problem, such as diabetes, obesity or a damaged immune system.  It is entirely possible that some of those may have died this year in any event.

There is also the problem of deaths being treated as caused by Covid-19 when the patient died having tested positive for the virus.  Any doctor will tell you that most men over 80 have prostate cancer, but in the majority of cases the cancer is not active and cannot be said to have caused the man’s death.  The UK also has an unjustified reputation for high numbers of people dying with heart disease.  This has been traced to doctors entering the words ‘myocardial infarction’ on the death certificate when the patient’s heart simply stopped beating.  Statisticians collecting statistics on causes of death were entering this in the box ‘heart disease’ when supplying statistics to the World Health Organisation.

So a patient who dies with Covid-19 does not necessarily die from Covid-19.  The pneumonia he contracted because of his faulty immune system caused by his diabetes (probably caused by his obesity) would have carried him off anyway.  But the doctor, very understandably, puts down ‘Covid-19’ on the death certificate and rushes back to save those patients who are still alive. 

Even assuming the percentage of 1.03% is correct, this still brings us back to the position we were in for every year up to 2000.  We did not have social distancing or face-masks or widely-available flu vaccines then.  We just got on with life and accepted that everyone has to die some time.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 9th, 2020 at 6:40 pm and is filed under Fresh News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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