When we become inured to death

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In 2017 and 2018, when all eyes were on several horrific incidents of mass gun violence, the United States was averaging just under one incident of mass gun violence per day (defined by the excellent Gun Violence Archive as four or more people killed or injured in one reported incident). During the pandemic year of 2020, that number rose to 1.66 incidents per day, and so far in 2021 we are averaging over 1.9 mass gun violence incidents per day, twice the average rate of 2017!

How many news articles and blog posts (including here) have you read on the subject of death from gun violence recently? Probably not very many. Admittedly, the much higher total death count from Covid-19 has crowded out many of these stories. And hey, it is a lot harder for a mass murderer to kill in schools that are on virtual instruction, or in movie theaters closed due to Covid. Is that good news?

Now add to the 30,000+ annual gun fatalities the 600,000+ Covid deaths that half of the governors seem to dismiss. The newspaper obituary pages have greatly expanded column-inches. At up to $2000 a pop for a decent eulogy, at least we are getting some economic stimulus into that struggling business out of the deal. Unfortunately, many of the most loved these folks only got a Zoom funeral. Does anybody else care anymore?

Guns, frogs, thoughts and prayers

Some of my most re-tweeted posts back in 2018 were on the subject of “stochastic terrorism.” My analyses demonstrated how the number of mass gun violence incidents on any given day was eerily but statistically similar to what you would expect from a standard lottery drawing that averaged one winning ticket drawn per day, in other words, horribly random. Lottery managers can predict with precision, over the long term, the number of days this type of lottery would produce zero, one, two, three, or more winning tickets, and yet still average just one per day. This is a simple calculation called a Poisson probability distribution. [1] It also predicts all too well the number of mass gun violence incidents reported on any one day.

The daily rate of very unlucky “winners” of the gun violence lottery has doubled since then, with very little protest from the press. The mild-sounding verb inure came to my mind, which means to become accustomed to an unpleasant event or task. The classic “go to” here is the boiling of frogs, but that story is a myth. Gun violence is not.

My point in those postings was that, while people were wringing their hands trying to find the “one true cause” of increasing gun violence, they were and are missing the strongest correlation — there are just more guns and they are poorly secured. Throughout the pandemic, U.S. gun sales, especially what I term “high-lethality weapons,” [2] surged in quantity. In a very sad sense, guns are designed to “go off,” and the numbers suggest that a certain percentage of these thousands of guns sold are just “going off” with tragic results. And all we get from the politicians is “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” My numbers say that thoughts and prayers are not effective. Make your own theological conclusion here.

Is there anything more to say about Covid deaths?

Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha, one of the most respected scientific voices on the impact of the coronavirus, has recently noted that Covid-19 “is now a largely vaccine-preventable disease.” Let that sink in. Despite the denials from the country’s right wing, the evidence strongly suggests that over 90% of the deaths since the vaccines have become widely available did not have to happen. Our collective society allowed those human beings to suffer and die, and forced their families into anguished mourning. Collectively, we have become inured to “excess deaths” at an unprecedented scale over the past year.

I wrote recently about the “God will save me!” theology that has been stoked by naked political opportunism to spread the gospel of Covid denial in a substantial segment of American populace. I won’t go further down that head-slapping frustration here. I have to admit in myself a bit of schadenfreude when I see one more conspiracy-selling radio host go into hospital with Covid, and then I have to kick myself to recognize that even hate-mongerers usually have families who love them.

This is a war of “excess death” data and tragic anecdote, say of parents of five small children both dying of Covid, running against statistically more common anecdotes like “My uncle had Covid and he just lost his sense of smell for a week.” I have called the latter an “I got home safely after driving drunk” form of reality denial that reinforces risky behavior in otherwise-rational humans.

Many evolutionary biologists see religion itself emerging in human cultures tens of thousands of years ago as a denial and coping method for this ever-present specter of death. You don’t really die, many religions say. Reality may be too much for normal humans to bear, and perhaps this is the seminal source of the widespread death denial we are seeing right now.

Petrarch's Triumph of Death.

One more rant as supposed religious believers ramp up their demand for religious or medical exemptions to mandatory Covid vaccination. Most professing Christians may not realize that, when undergoing the common Roman punishment of crucifixion, death most likely came from suffocation leading to multiple organ failure. Death from Covid-19 also comes most often from suffocation-related multiple organ failure, with the last days of many patients artificially prolonged in medical limbo by ventilators, and without loved ones to hold their hands. That, too, is a horrible way to die, and it likely happens daily in your community’s hospital, imposing a growing toll on our over-stressed medical personnel. Think about that when you seek your “religious exemption.”

This is not a new story

The early conservative take on Covid-19 was that it was “only the flu.” This comment still floats around, but it is horribly ignorant. Some seasons of influenza are much worse than others and some annual vaccine versions are less effective than others, but the average loss of U.S. life from influenza each winter is about 35,000 people. In the last year, Covid has killed 15 times that number in the U.S., so “it ain’t just the flu.”

However, here is a case where a much wider adoption of the influenza vaccine could clearly save tens of thousands of lives annually, and yet we have never raised the public concern level up to anywhere near the polio or Covid levels. One fascinating effect of more widespread masking during the last winter was that cases diagnosed of “ordinary” influenza dropped significantly. Would the public be willing to “mask up” every winter in order to prevent deaths of their friends and family (or strangers) from the flu? Probably not. That, too, is what “inure” means.


Notes:

  1. Pronounced “pwa-sahn” and named after the French mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840). For example, here is the graph of mass shooting incidents per day for the first half of 2018 versus the predicted count per day assuming Poisson randomness (like a lottery drawing where there may be zero, one, or multiple “winners”):
    Mass shootings 2018
  2. Second Amendment pedants are “triggered” by the use of the term “assault rifle” and so I have long advocated using already existing industry data, which arrays gun models and ammunition types on various scales of “effectiveness” at the fast and accurate disposal of hunted prey, to define a continuum of “high-lethality weapon” measurement and control.

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