Please, Sir, I Want Some More

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Recently, the New York Times published another one of its COVID-19 horror stories; this time, it was the tale that 200,000 children in the US have “lost one or both parents” because of COVID-19. Although any death in the family may be a personal tragedy, manipulating figures to scare people into obedience is a national scandal.

The article, heavy on personal narrative, relies on two main sources: Hidden Pain (covidcollaborative.us) and COVID-19 Orphanhood. Hidden Pain took the number of deaths from the National Vital Statistics System and estimated the number of parents lost by using data on household demographics from the US Census Bureau. With these data they estimated that 167,000 children lost a parent or primary caregiver as a result of COVID-19. Yet a closer look at the data reveals that about 40% (67,000) of these losses may involve grandparents. Irrespective of COVID-19, most people will lose at least one grandparent before turning 18.

COVID-19 Orphanhood data come from researchers at Imperial College London. The number of parent deaths by their estimate sits at around 197,000. However, their reliance on estimates is also problematic. Perhaps most absurd is the fact that they use a fertility rate also used by Susan Hillis (who works at the CDC) and her colleagues, published in the Lancet, that suggests fertility only hits zero in males at age 80 and in females at age 50. Although it is possible for males and females to become parents at these ages, it is extremely unlikely. The actual number of fathers 79 or older is so rare that there are even internet lists of them. The trouble with an assumption that males will be fertile until age 80 is that it grossly overestimates the number of children who will lose a father, since COVID-19 has been far more likely to be fatal to old people than to middle-aged or young people. The estimates published by Imperial College bear that out — once one corrects for the College’s strange estimate of paternal deaths occurring 2.5 times more often than maternal deaths. Published sex-disaggregated data have revealed that sex differences in COVID-19 deaths in young and middle-aged adults are negligible. In other words, the estimates for maternal and paternal deaths should be broadly 50/50. There is clearly something odd about an estimate that has fathers dying more than twice as often as mothers.

Although any death in the family may be a personal tragedy, manipulating figures to scare people into obedience is a national scandal.

 

This is not the first time an Imperial College study has made outrageous estimates or predictions that the New York Times jumped on. Early in the pandemic it predicted there would be 2.2 million COVID-19 deaths in the US. This didn’t come close to happening. The Times — along with other media sites that sell fear — usually fails to report good news, such as CDC’s removal of over 70,000 COVID-19 deaths (nearly 8% of all US COVID-19 deaths at the time and nearly 25% of US children’s COVID-19 deaths) because the CDC’s algorithm “was accidentally counting deaths that were not COVID-19-related.”

The question of these “accidental” miscounts doesn’t even touch upon the issue of whether individuals counted as COVID-19 deaths died with or died of COVID-19. A recent example is the death of Cedric McMillan, a 44-year-old bodybuilder, who is said to have died of complications caused by COVID-19; but he was also in a serious bike accident and had a heart condition. Even one of the deaths (that of Thomas Lanza) used in the New York Times article is complicated by the fact that an earlier source explicitly states that the man in question did not die from COVID-19. These are just two examples of a wider issue that the media mostly ignores.

One may ask why the Times should focus on the fear narrative. Perhaps it is to convince the readership that there is still a crisis — a crisis that will require the help of a multitude of nonprofit organizations (the parental death article mentions four such organizations) and will require government assistance (the article mentions four sites for such assistance). Perhaps it is to support a Democratic government’s decision to continue a state of emergency far beyond anything that might be necessary. Or perhaps it is part of the New York Times’ agenda to make everything about race: the article mentions the “much higher rates among communities of color.” Regardless of the reason, promotion of the fear narrative based on poor and exaggerated estimates of deaths and tragedy encourages the populace to accept the mantra of “your freedoms don’t matter in a pandemic.” But that is precisely the problem. Given the fact that government’s pandemic overreach probably set civil liberties back a generation, a pandemic is precisely when your freedoms matter most.

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