Every semester, the most common feedback I give on my philosophy students’ essays is to dig deeper into the topic and be more detailed in their philosophical responses. As philosophers, I believe we are charged above all with the need to not accept facts at face value, but to delve deeper to find the truth. I also believe that philosophy should not be constrained to the “big issues” or to analytical contemplation, but philosophy should be applied to everyday life. Philosophers serve an important role as gadflies who peel back the surface to reveal the wider connections and deeper meanings and resonances in daily events.
So, I can’t help but turn my philosophical gaze to the unfolding tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are many aspects of the pandemic that need to be explored but I will use as an example a surface issue we see constantly: the statistics of cases of and deaths from the virus. Most people, and sadly most reporters, take the statistics at face value. But these stats vividly show the need to dig deeper and respond with questions for more details. The official numbers tell only part of the story.
The problem with the official statistics is the problem inherent with any statistics: they only indicate what was measured, not what actually is. Data is not knowledge, much less wisdom, and the appropriate interpretation of data requires understanding what was and what wasn’t measured and thus, what is and isn’t included in the statistics. In terms of Covid-19, the number of cases reports the number of positive test results, not the numbers of people who are infected but have not been tested. That’s fairly obvious and a straightforward practical matter that epidemiologists know to take that into account as they track the spread of the virus. It is why we hear the medical experts plead for more testing. More testing leads directly to greater knowledge about the pandemic.
In the official death statistics, there lurks another problem where not only medical experts but philosophers need to weigh in. In most, if not all, countries, the official Cov-19 death toll only measures those who one, tested positive for the virus, and two, died in a hospital. The former is a straightforward practical matter—only those tested and can be counted toward this statistic. But the latter is a policy matter that raises political and ethical issues including how the latter dovetails with the former.
The official Covid-19 death statistics do not include infected people who died at home or in care or nursing homes. We know that particularly at risk to Covid-19 are people who are elderly and/or suffering from previous health conditions. Such people are, by the millions, living in facilities geared to care for them that are not classified as hospitals. Some, but not all, of these people are transferred to a hospital if they become infected with the Covid-19 virus. Those never transferred to a hospital are, if they die, not measured in the official statistics.
As a philosopher, indeed as a human being, we need to ask why these people are considered to be out of the equation. This is not a simply academic question because in peeling back the surface, we reveal deeper questions. Does this exclusion in the measurements signal a deeper social neglect of the elderly and unhealthy? Not necessarily, but we do well to ask the question. Care and nursing homes are underfunded and understaffed. These are well-known problems. (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3) It is also known that this problem has contributed to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. This blind spot in human society continues in not only putting these people at greater risk for contracting the virus but not even rating in governments’ Covid-19 measurements. If these people aren’t being counted in the death toll, are they also not being tested and protected?
In addition to the social and political issue of lack of proper care for the elderly is the question of why are we being given only partial statistics in the official death tolls? Whatever the motive behind it, the full picture is not being presented. The actual Covid-19 death toll is certainly higher than the official statistics. The question is how much higher? 24% as in the UK? What is being measured and what is not being measured? And why? What does the undercounting signal and to what other issues does it connect? What are the deeper meanings that the undercounting reveal? We need to know.
The habit that good philosophers have of always digging deeper and asking questions is a good habit for everyone. Even if we trust the authorities who are speaking to us, we need to be willing to not accept what they tell us at face value and to go beyond the surface to see what’s really going on. The questions annoy some people, just like my constant exhortations to dig deeper annoys some of my students. But demanding more information and better answers are good antidotes for much of what ails us.