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Israel forgot 53 COVID deaths. Stats screw-up is devastating — and irrelevant

Statistics have become our pandemic security blanket, and with its major miscalculation, the government has taken away a source of calm
Chevra Kadisha workers wearing protective clothes, carry the body of Rabbi Avraham Heber who died from complications of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, at the Shamgar Funeral Home in Jerusalem, on April 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chevra Kadisha workers wearing protective clothes, carry the body of Rabbi Avraham Heber who died from complications of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, at the Shamgar Funeral Home in Jerusalem, on April 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesterday’s astounding admission that authorities forgot dozens of deaths in their virus stats makes no difference to our picture of the pandemic, but it’s a disaster in terms of the national psychology.

It was shocking to hear that some 53 deaths at elderly homes were simply overlooked. However, if we’re trying to understand how well or badly Israel is faring with the virus, it’s largely irrelevant.

After all, if the death toll didn’t stand today at 779, as it does with the missing deaths newly added, but 726 if they hadn’t been noticed yet, would you feel we’re in a notably better situation? The change makes hardly any difference to our deaths-per-million count or where we rank internationally in terms of coronavirus impact.

But that’s not the point.

In an open-ended pandemic full of fear and uncertainty, we latch on to figures as a glint of certainty. We think they give us a clear picture, when everything is up in the air, even the question of how seriously to take claims of vaccine breakthroughs after Vladimir Putin’s questionable claims. Tired of fake news? At least we have sturdy statistics.

A medical team at the coronavirus unit of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Compare how these two short reports on Israel’s current situation, both of them accurate but the first heavy on stats and the second heavy on context, make you feel respectively:

Report 1

Israeli authorities have updated coronavirus statistics, after uncovering the first significant error in half-a-year of record keeping. They added 53 deaths that were overlooked. The death count now stands at 789 and there are 23,913 active cases, with 403 people in serious or critical condition. There are 110 ventilated patients. Yesterday 27,522 tests were conducted. Infection rates are higher among men than women, and in terms of age group, highest in the 20-29 demographic, which accounts for 21% of cases.

Report 2

Israel’s official coronavirus death count stands at 789, after the addition of 53 deaths that were overlooked. There are 23,913 active cases who have taken tests, but doctors have no idea how many others have the virus . It’s unclear how accurately this reflects the human cost of the pandemic, as some of these people are though to have suffered from other conditions that were putting their lives in danger, while others are though to be dying from the coronavirus at home but not registered as COVID-positive.

Metrics have become, in a sense, our pandemic security blanket.

Whether they seem to tell us good news or bad news, they are something we can grasp on to, and rely on. Engaging with the stats feels soothing. It’s no coincidence. What scares many people about this pandemic is that there’s no end in sight — it seems infinite. Numbers are an antidote to this uncertainty, they are finite.

Passengers wearing face masks at the Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on June 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussii/Flash90)

But an admission like yesterday’s forces us all to confront the fact that stats aren’t as trusty and reliable as we like to think. Some 53 deaths can be forgotten and nobody noticed until now. It may be an isolated mistake or there may be others.

Either way, it’s devastating to our attempts to stay level-headed during the pandemic, reassured that, despite everything, numbers tell us where we stand. It has shattered the illusion we tried to maintain — in spite of knowing on an intellectual level that human errors are possible — about coronavirus figures.

Israel’s newly-appointed coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu has promised to boost public trust in the authority’s management of the pandemic. With the erosion of trust in statistics, his job suddenly got much harder.

Nathan Jeffay is Health and Science correspondent for The Times of Israel

About the Author
Nathan Jeffay is the science and health reporter for The Times of Israel. He has been writing for Jewish and Israeli publications since 1997, and lectures widely on the topics he covers.
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