Wednesday Briefs – 9 December 2020

A weekly commentary on current events. Follow populyst to receive notification.

This week: Lost Person-Years; Manhattan Foot Traffic; Littlewood’s Law.

Lost Person-Years

The US death toll (red line in the chart, right hand scale) from the virus will surpass 350,000 before the pandemic subsides, a high figure even if the actual number of person-years lost by the elderly is significantly less than the pandemic would have exacted if it had targeted mainly the young. Cold-blooded counters remind us that Covid casualties are on average aged 80, a population group with a remaining life expectancy of nine years, and that therefore the number of lost person-years is “only” 3.15 million (350,000 x 9). (The number is probably much lower because most of the dead had co-morbidities that would have reduced their average life expectancy to less than nine years.)

By contrast in the 1918 pandemic, 99% of US deaths occurred in people under 65, and half under 45. Assuming a remaining life expectancy of twelve years for those age 45 (ex the impact of the pandemic) and using the 675,000 estimated US deaths, the number of lost person-years in the 1918 pandemic was 8.1 million (675,000 x 12), or more than twice the Covid figure. Greater cynics may even mention the quality of life of an octogenarian vs. that of a younger person.

With life expectancy now closer to 80 than 55 (where it was in 1919), a similar pandemic to that of 1918 would erase 12.3 million (using 350,000 deaths) or 23.6 million (using 675,000 deaths) person-years, or indeed many more if we adjust for a larger population size. Mitigating these numbers is the fact that our medicine and understanding of disease are more advanced today. In 1918 and for many years, the real source of the pandemic was unknown and was still believed to be a bacterium, Pfeiffer’s bacillus, rather than the H1N1 avian virus.

This body counting could be useful to sociologists and economists. But on the ground, every life is precious and should be preserved for as long as our society can afford it, which seems to be quite a long time given our ability and willingness to borrow massive sums of money ad infinitum. Maximizing the duration of every life is not a stance that gets unanimous support among policy makers. Some compute the collective cost to society and advocate a sort of new age wisdom that essentially calls for each of us to hang it up at 75. They suggest that those with severe health issues should forego expensive treatments after 75, because, they allege, quality of life after 75 is simply not worth the cost. This is a personal and family matter that does not easily lend itself to generalized policy-making.

Manhattan Foot Traffic

Calling the end of New York City and other urban centers is all the rage now. As a whole, the City suffered a big hit from the pandemic in the spring but, although the current climb in case numbers is worrying, this wave seems mild and manageable so far. A 70 to 80% majority of New York State’s new cases and deaths are now taking place outside the City. The seven-day averages of new daily cases and deaths are now 9,200 and 66 statewide, and 3,100 and 14 in the City. Manhattan looks better than the other boroughs with daily new cases and deaths at fewer than 400 and 5 daily.

As to conditions on the ground, the return of activity in Manhattan must be looked at in parts. Residential areas such as the Upper East and Upper West Side seem back to normal during the day, but are still quiet after hours, with most people opting to stay away from restaurants or other evening activities. Midtown is a different story and is eerily quiet in the middle of the day, because most businesses are still working remotely, full or part-time, and tourists are largely absent. Using this source for Times Square for example, we can see that foot traffic in October was down 71% from the previous year, a dismal showing though much improved from last April’s 91% year on year decline.

We probably will not know until next fall what the new normal will look like. And it may take a few years for Midtown to fully restore itself to its former appearance and activity. When it does, we may have a different mix of in-person workers as less essential personnel are permanently outlocated to less expensive boroughs or indeed to their own homes. A question will then be whether at-home staff will have the same opportunities for career advancement or whether they will be disadvantaged by a new two-tier system relative to their colleagues working in person in the office.

Littlewood’s Law

‘We live in an increasingly crazy world’ is widely accepted wisdom nowadays but it is not necessarily true. It is possible that the world was always as crazy but we are more aware of it because of 1) instant and ubiquitous communication via media and social media and 2) Littlewood’s Law which is a variant on the law of very large numbers.

Littlewood’s Law states that any of us is likely to experience or learn about a one in a million event about once a month. The premise and corollary of the Law are that 1) such events occur more often as the size of the population or sample increases (more odd happenings in a world population of 7.5 billion than of 1 billion) and 2) that our knowledge of them is amplified by our advanced media and communication infrastructure. Some news outlets and channels report such outlier events and stories as if they were indicative of nascent or developed trends when in reality they should be attributed to coincidences, mental illnesses, rare and extremist ideologies, errors, misunderstandings, and plain unexplained serendipity.

The Drudge Report for example achieved success by showcasing rare events in a way that made them appear integral to larger social or political trends. By contrast, data and fact-centric organizations such Our World in Data and Gapminder apply themselves to the task of identifying real trends and of dispelling misperceptions created by the type of rare stories and anecdotes that the media favors. See for example this recent survey from Gapminder or the book Factfulness by its late founder Hans Rosling.

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