Opinion: one of the biggest lessons from a year of the pandemic is that numbers tell us something, but they don't tell us everything

From the very start, the Covid-19 pandemic has been framed primarily as a numbers game. A year ago, we began counting and we haven't stopped since. Daily news bulletins and reports commence with the recitation of the number of people diagnosed with Covid, the number admitted to hospital, the number in ICU and the number of deaths. Later, the 14 day incidence rate and the five day moving average were added, as was the positivity rate.

If we are not swimming in numbers, we are drowning in them. A common feature of what German sociologist, Steffen Mau terms "the metric society" is the drive to quantify more and more spheres of human and social life. From chasing Leaving Certificate points and tracking our fitness levels to checking our social media "likes" and counting the calories in the food we eat, we rely on numbers to navigate everyday life. Mau notes that we use numbers to assess performance, create accountability, be more transparent and achieve greater efficiency in the choices and decisions we make. These processes are increasingly enabled by advancing technological development.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News, March 2nd report on the lowest number of new Covid-19 cases since mid-December

The social significance of the drive toward quantification - the production and communication of numbers- has been brought into sharp relief in these Covid-19 times. In the beginning, the figures took on a kind of totemic quality. We watched with horror as the numbers in each category began to climb against the broader backdrop of what was happening in Italy, Spain, the UK and the US.

Coming out of the first lockdown we were pacified by the reducing numbers and bursting with pride at our admirably low R rate. In the summer, life returned to something that resembled normal, but that was short-lived. By autumn 2020, rising numbers on all fronts meant the return of restrictions and, by Christmas, we faced the stark reality of a third wave that had pushed the numbers to new heights.

Now in lockdown once again, the daily digest of numbers has been augmented. We still get the statistics on the course and trajectory of the disease, but we now also receive daily totals on the number of vaccinations administered.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Paul Reid from the HSE says they plan to complete vaccinations for over 85s by the end of this week

Why such a relentless focus on counting and quantifying - and what are the implications? We need to remember that numbers are a form of language, created and shaped by human beings. In his new book, The Uncounted, Alex Cobham reminds us that "statistics and metrics do not simply appear fully formed, nor do they emerge from some neutral process of knowledge search… Data is constructed in such a way as to support the emergence of social structures that are more 'governable’."

The provision of numbers by government frames Covid within particular boundaries - namely, the course of the disease and the attempts to contain it - and powerfully communicates a rationale for the imposition of severe social control mechanisms. In the process, government constitutes the public as a unitary population with a common purpose. It renders us governable. We are all in this together - except when we are not.

Steffen Mau observes that our capacity for competition and comparison has expanded significantly through quantification. We can measure ourselves against others on almost any metric. Data on the 14 day incidence rate across the country is available on the COVID Tracker App (with counties listed alphabetically) and the Covid-19 Data Hub shows incidence rates across Dublin at local level.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News, the Covid-19 pandemic one year on from the first case was found here

This information frequently appears in the media ranked from the highest to the lowest in terms of incidence of the disease. All of this encourages comparison, but often without context. For instance, the "worst" rates in Dublin generally are recorded in neighbourhoods that are considered relatively disadvantaged, while the "best" performers are neighbourhoods that are relative advantaged. The meaning of the statistics cannot be understood in isolation from the social fact that high rates of social and spatial segregation persist in the city of Dublin. Covid incidence quantification subtly reinforces hierarchies that already shape the life chances of Dubliners.

Like language, numbers are a means of communication. They form part of a grammar or vocabulary that makes the use of numbers meaningful in particular contexts. For numbers to be useful, we have to be able to contextualise and interpret them. Unfortunately, the daily recitations of Covid numbers in ritualistic fashion does not lend itself to easy interpretation. It is as if we are given a daily snapshot, but not the tools to see that snapshot in a wide angle frame that takes into account what has gone before and what may lie ahead.

We can be forgiven if we have started to suffer from 'numerical fatigue'

There are lots of moving parts with this disease which makes it difficult to capture through compiling raw numbers or generating statistical scenarios. To date, there have been multiple revisions made of statistical projections on Covid'd trajectory. While there is lots of information out there, it may not translate straightforwardly into knowledge.

We can be forgiven if we have started to suffer from 'numerical fatigue'. Numbers tell us something, but they do not tell us everything. That is the lesson that we have all learned over the last year. The disease remains a significant challenge, but if the number of vaccinations continue to increase in line with much publicised projections, then maybe - just maybe - some respite may be on the horizon.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ