Kandida Purnell By: Kandida Purnell
Assistant Professor of International Relations
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19 Jul 2020 : On numbers and numbness

I have been wanting to say something about COVID-19 body counting for a while but this post has remained in my 'drafts' for months and therefore contains reflections dating back to early May. However, events in England over the past few days have pushed me to press 'publish'.

It is 5th May 2020 and the UK’s official (Government compiled) COVID-19 death toll has overtaken that of Italy’s, meaning ours just became the second highest globally with only the US figure remaining higher. However, the UK’s First Secretary of State Dominic Raab (still standing in for our hospitalised Prime Minister Boris Johnson) has, as Honeycombe-Foster and Langford report it in PoliticsHome, ‘batted away’ the number pushing Britain into second place by explaining that ‘there are different ways of counting deaths.’ Tomorrow, on the 6th May and as our official death toll passes 30,000, the newspapers’ front covers will not state any number let alone the faces of the dead. On the contrary they will rejoice in the rumour spreading fast - that the British lockdown will be eased next week. 

While faces of the dead have remained elusive and the population has been separated out into enclaves, throughout this pandemic I, along with the rest of the population paying attention,  have been bombarded with numbers. Numbers as targets, ‘good’ numbers,  'bad' numbers, and ‘shameful’ numbers. And of course, every day there is a new number to take in as the daily death toll rises and yet, I have felt distinctly out of touch with the pandemic, finding the numbers numbing. I am not someone normally interested in numbers, and yet in the past I have written about body counts - more accurately about ways of counting or not counting bodies. When it comes to the contested production of dead bodies, of course, I realise ‘the numbers' matter. However, my aim has never been to count accurately. Indeed, from my perspective, this is neither desirable or a possibility due to all ways of making knowledge (let alone knowledge itself) being laden with power. As Raab’s above remark (that ‘there are different ways of counting deaths’) makes plain, a number can simply be ‘batted away.’  Thus, finding numbers far too slippery, too intangible, I have been yearning for something more solid throughout this pandemic. Despite this, I found myself looking forward to the UK's Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) Tweeting out the daily official death toll since they began doing it at around 4pm daily after an initial and stressful lack of regularly available and coherent data. If there was a delay or it reached the end of the day and I had not checked for the Tweet, my anxiety would spike until I had found the number. All along, I also had a horrible suspicion that one day the numbers would disappear all together. And indeed they finally did on the 17th July when the DHSC announced that daily death and testing figures would no longer be made available saying ‘data on deaths has been temporarily paused while an urgent review into Public Health England data is carried out.’ In the end a narrative about suspected over counting came to be the excuse for blacking out COVID-19 fatality figures. This, in the country with the highest excess death rate on earth during the pandemic. 

Prior to the eventual but predictable body count blackout, locating the number via Twitter or the DHSC dashboard, and no matter the height of the figure itself, I would feel momentarily calmer but never satisfied. In truth, no number could answer my questions about the pandemic and the ways and means of bodies being consumed within and by it. Indeed, as Jenny Edkins has written, such quantifications ‘miss’ the person and with it the politics. During the COVID-19 pandemic Deborah Raj - a data scientist herself - has spoken of frustrations akin to mine admitting that ‘when we aggregate, we obfuscate the humanity of those our systems represent & impact’ adding as explanation for this as ‘partially because we are actually scared of the human hiding within.’ As a social-political theorist rather than data scientist, I have always been motivated by and indeed driven towards knowing what others might turn away from, perhaps in fear as Raj suggests. Through this pandemic what I have found particularly disturbing has therefore been my very lack of any ability to access and comprehend the pandemic and its devastating effects at any meaningful level - either visually or otherwise - not only as a social-political theorist but as a witness and ethically responsible citizen.

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