Sense-Making, Pretzel-Baking, and Statistics of Pandemic Proportions

Mikaela Springsteen

The list of things which I count is growing.

It has been seven days since last I went shopping. Forty-five have passed since my last close contact with someone outside the household. We have currently—among other stores—two cups of dry milk, a quarter cup of coarse salt, and two bags of flour (enough to make at least eight dozen more Bavarian pretzels). The state of New York has seen 312,977 confirmed cases of Covid-19, 7.7% of whom have died. My temperature averages 98.3ºF—within normal bounds. NY has conducted 959,071 tests. New cases are detected daily: 4,585; 4,681; 3,942; 4,663.

I cannot see the virus itself—having somehow neglected to bring a microscope with me into lockdown, and am fortunate that no one I am quarantined with has yet been infected. What I can see—what we all can see—are all the virus metrics. These are quoted and discussed on TV, in newspapers, and in every other conversation that I have. Visualizations of these numbers have proliferated as researchers, statisticians, and anyone with a computer and rudimentary coding skills each adds their voice to the mix. I count myself in this number—in an attempt to better understand the dynamics of this pandemic I created my own series of dashboards for exploring various virus trends.

But what are these visualizations and ‘explainers’ for? Do we really need them all? Are they any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful?

There is good reason to be skeptical. This merry band of visualizations has been introduced to a public which is, as a whole, not particularly statistically-literate and in desperate search of information about the progression of this pandemic. Statistics are famously manipulable—whether deliberately or accidentally, they may be distorted with very little effort and a worried audience might not be able to distinguish the good from the garbage. These statistics, for good or ill, then go on to shape their perception of reality. Anyone creating these metrics must therefore bear responsibility for ensuring their clarity and accuracy, and in so doing should consider the level of statistical knowledge required to reliably interpret the information presented.

Despite these valid concerns, I believe that this proliferation of virus metrics should not, on balance, be considered a bad thing. Each visualization represents an impulse to understand, an urge to learn—an impulse which I see as an unalloyed good. It is an impulse with which I sympathize. Most of my own research has begun with that impulse, and I know I am not alone in finding comfort in the relative certainty of answers so derived. Of course, the danger these visualizations pose cannot be ignored, and that initial impulse must then be supported by good science. Misleading statistics and misinterpretation remain ever-present dangers, and how much comfort or understanding could someone get from a metric they don’t truly understand?

So what is to be done to bridge this divide?

In this pandemic we have all been exhorted to care for not only ourselves but, if possible, for someone else as well. That care may come in many forms—doing the shopping for a vulnerable neighbor, taking time to check in with one another, or helping others to navigate the deluge of information which surrounds this virus. In this moment when many of us have a bit more time on our hands, and a lot more information to sort through, there is an opportunity to help others to understand, to be critical and inquisitive.

And what of the chart-builders? The visualizers and coders? Those with enough statistical skill to be dangerous? Their responsibility is great, but it need not be theirs alone. This is a time in which collaboration can flourish. Charts and graphs can nearly always be improved. Especially in this time, where the ordinary timelines for scientific understanding have been somewhat broken down, mistakes may be made. Even in the absence of malice or agenda, errors may occur. Open, good-faith efforts at discussion, collaboration, communication, and improvement can be taken to improve the state of the informational eco-system for all.

There is opportunity here, in the midst of all else, to construct a post-pandemic world that may in some small way improve upon the one before. Levels of statistical literacy may be buoyed by this time, as people strive to understand the statistics which presently rule us all. Collaborations and communication could likewise increase—even if simply as a way to pass pandemic time.

Of course, all this may not come to pass. Easily, the world could slip the other way, leaving us with more confusion and greater mistrust of scientific expertise—particularly if statistics are seen to be too opaque, too partisan, and too manipulable to be trusted.

For all of us, I hope it is the former scenario which will rule the day. Until then, however, as we all remain isolated together, I will do my part to communicate and to collaborate. I talk with my grandmother daily to help her to navigate the latest reports and statistics released by the governor. I continue to develop my own graphs with updates and suggested improvements.

And I will continue to count.

It has been over a month since I last saw my sister. My family is spread across five different states. Nearly a week has passed since I baked a batch of pretzels (which makes me at least 4 days overdue). In eight days New York State will reach the end of its current ‘pause,’ the scientists and policy-makers will reassess, and the count will begin again.

This article was written by Mikaela Springsteen with the aid of 5 cups of tea and nearly 2 whole slices of cake. Mikaela is a recent graduate of Edinburgh Sociology and is currently isolating in a house in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, from where she runs the website Counting Covid-19 —a series of interactive data dashboards exploring virus trends.

Thursday clap 7 May

A foreshortened clap was recorded at the Thursday clap last night, 7 May. We had just got going when it was noticed that a neighbour was missing who had been at all the others. No lights in the house but car still outside. A distance conversation took place about this, as there are cases of coronavirus in this small village, in others surrounding, and in the local market town. We don’t know yet. The clap this week was an anxious business.

Thursday clap 7 May

A new approach to social sciences

A new approach to social sciences, humanities in a time of crisis, Jess Auerbach and Nina Hall
The University World News of 8 May 2020 has a very interesting lead item, a think-piece on the key issues that need to be addressed in responding to what should be living in a changed world. The authors pick out compassion and empathy for others as an underlying principle, the reconfiguration of thought around being inside the body and experiencing events in a visceral way, and creating new visions of how to put into practice social science. They also comment, “We can amplify the voices of those who propose working together, rather than those who would have a stay apart. We can petition for equitable relief within economic regions and we can participate in the reimagination of everything from the moral economy to food systems and social solidarity.“ Think differently, because there is no going back, is the bottom line of their message. This is a thoughtful contribution to reimagining the social sciences and is well worth reading. Access it here.

Early morning thoughts

Chloe MacLean

The mind and body are separate? Oh aye, gid yin Descartes! Try tellin ma body that. It kens what I’m thinkin’ before ma brain consciously understands it. I woke up at 5:45am today, a Sunday, unable tae sleep anymare. This not-sleeping-at-night is becoming an infrequently frequent pattern for me. I was a bit shocked when I woke because yesterday I had a really good day. In the morning I delivered an online group exercise class for ma pals via zoom, and went a long walk tae the meadows. The meadows is absolutely beautiful just now, the cherry blossom trees are in full blossom sprinkling the air with pink petals. The trees make me feel hopeful, I don’t know why, but they do. Maybe it’s a feeling of continuity – that they blossom every year – or that there is always beauty tae be found in horrible times. I also had ma fav dinner last night – fajitas – and a chatted to ma pals on zoom. So it was a good day. I felt calm. Felt content. I felt ‘things are alright’.

But I find maself with under 6 hours of sleep lying wide awake with an anxious buzz across my body. I’m not entirely sure what this buzz wants me to dae, or what its anxious about. It’s a feeling that’s been supressed, but now I feel the anxiety buzzing in my arms and chest, and I canny sleep.

Really, if I was tae think about it, I’ve been thinkin a lot since the pandemic about ma contribution to…life? What am I doing and what can I be doing to help the wellbeing of others? I’ve always kent that time is short, so I’ve always had these thoughts since I was a wee girl tae be honest. But now time feels more pressin. I feel like I have a lot of thoughts in response tae those questions, but, those thoughts are all over the shop. They are flyin all over the shop, fast, so I canny even pick them up to put them in the right order. Ma thoughts are messy, knotted, and difficult to unravel. These thoughts are moving with panic.

There is a storm coming that ma body is bracing itself for. Ma heart canny take the thought of the austerity to come. It’s possible that now I’ve got a gid chance that my bank account will be okay after the pandemic. I’m from a working class background but work as a lecturer now. If there are redundancies to be made at ma work, once the temps and 0hrs staff have been cut, then, I guess, staff that are still on probation like me are easier tae cut. But, even if that was tae happen, I’ve saved as much as I can since starting my first academic post two and a half years ago, so I’d be okay for a bit. I grew up on benefits, I don’t need much money to get by. Without being told I’ve been taught to hold onto money when you get it cause… well, you don’t want the really skint days. And even though the likelihood is that I’ll be economically okay, ma body still feels that panic. Its alert system is on. Ma partner, ma dad, some of ma pals, ma neighbours – things look a lot less certain for them. What’s gonna happen tae the communities like the one I grew up in? Ma heart canny bare it.

These thoughts I feel across ma body as a sickening anxious buzz. So, I am awake at 5:45am trying, with urgency, tae make sense of it all. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day again.

A letter from Glasgow, Scotland 7 May 2020

Carrie Purcell

For me, work is as busy as ever. 

I’ve just finished reviewing applications for Wellcome’s Humanities and Social Science funding stream and the Covid-related submissions were fascinating, not least for how quickly social scientific teams can mobilise and produce a proposal. Whether they’re asking the questions we really need answers to, on the other hand, remains to be seen I suppose…

Myself and my abortion research colleagues are doing some swiftly put together data collection on women’s experiences of accessing abortion across the UK during the pandemic, with support from Wellcome (linked to our current Sexuality and Abortion Stigma Study). I think it will be interesting because there are obvious implications regarding a highly time-sensitive and gendered healthcare issue – referrals to abortion services are down nationally, what will that mean for women further down the line? We’ve also seen a long-blocked shift to telemedicine for abortion finally happened, which removes a real barrier to access for many. 

Meanwhile my new project is on hold as it involves training frontline NHS staff and recruiting people living with heart failure. But we’re thinking about opportunities to fully digitise the home self-care programme that the project is due to evaluate. This could potentially make it more accessible for users and health professionals alike, and generate a really useful tool if we have to maintain social distancing longer term. 

So the pandemic is creating restrictions and opportunities for change at the same time, and it will be good to track where that goes. 

Thinking Comparatively

Graham Crow

The sociological habit of thinking comparatively across time and space proves particularly useful at times when the familiar world is turned upside down and we are forced to reflect on what is ‘normal’. To-day my principal role was to act as internal examiner for a PhD viva in the changed circumstances of COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. The ‘new normal’ is the viva conducted virtually (in our case via Skype), and the whole thing passed off successfully aside from a delay to our schedule related to connection issues. Certainly academic standards were not allowed to slip.

In the run up to the viva I had remembered a passage from Harrison E. Salisbury’s book about the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War when the city was surrounded and Hitler’s troops and their allies sought over a period of nearly three years to starve the population into submission. Defiance by the city’s occupants was famously crystallised by Shostakovich’s Symphony number 7 and its remarkable performance in the city (as well as elsewhere). But Salisbury’s book recounts many other acts of resistance, including the example of which I was reminded this week: ‘The presentation and defense of doctoral dissertations had gone on without pause in Leningrad, all through the terrible winter [of 1941-2], in air-raid shelters, in cellars. There had been 847 defences of dissertations in the first months of the war. In December [1941] the Leningrad Party Committee warned the academic community “not to permit any liberalization in evaluating the work of students” just because of the war and its hardships. So the intellectual life of Leningrad went on….’ [1].

Estimates of the people who died during the 900 days vary but at well over a million dwarf those for the current pandemic. Moreover, the conditions in which those who survived had to exist – not only starvation but also shelling and bombing, intense cold, and the risk of falling victim to cannibals – in no sense provide a direct comparison to our current travails. But such episodes can still reveal much about human behaviour and resilience from which we can learn, as well as about the appropriateness or otherwise of likening the fight against the coronavirus to a war.

And one comparison can lead to another. Within a decade of the siege of Leningrad being lifted the Soviet leader Stalin was dead, and the search for a new normal for the country was being sought. His eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to ease the restrictiveness of the Stalinist regime but feared the consequences of relaxing restrictions too quickly and too much. As he put it, he was ‘afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us’ [2]. Once again, the land of Stalin’s secret police and Gulag camps and our own more limited restrictions on movement and association are not directly comparable, but there may nevertheless be some food for thought in considering the challenges faced not only in maintaining restrictions but also in managing their relaxation. Khrushchev was indeed ousted from power in 1964, but survived long enough to write his memoirs. He is also remembered for his unconventional means of gaining people’s attention [3]. But that is another story.


Footnotes

  1. Harrison E. Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, London: Pan Books, 2000, p.496.
  2. Quoted in Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p.111
  3. Roy Underhill, Khrushchev’s Shoe and other ways to captivate audiences from one to one thousand, Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000.

A letter from central coast, California, USA 4 May 2020

Lisa Kalayji

The pharmacy department is a fair way down the length of the enormous store – past the pet food, greeting cards, stationary, and toiletries, across from an olfactory sea of scented candles and shelves full of colourful coffee mugs that say things like ‘Mondays don’t like me either’ and ‘good day for a vaycay’. I dodge to and fro on the way there in a vain attempt to keep two metres distant from each person in an obstactle course of nervous pensioners, small gaggles of giggling teenagers, and weary parents with carts full of Legos and craft supplies.

I stand on the floor sticker designating an appropriate distance from the other patrons until I’m called forward. I recognise the person behind the cash register – I worked at the Starbucks kiosk at the front of the store during the winter holidays, just after I arrived back in the US, and she often came there on her breaks. She doesn’t seem to recognise me as the former peppermint mocha jockey (or maybe she just can’t see enough of my face under the surgical mask currently digging crevices into my lower eyelids), and even if she had, she seems too tired to make small talk. She wears a lanyard with a clear plastic pocket hung from it, but instead of a photo ID, it contains a card inscribed with a single word in large, boldface print: ‘IMMUNOCOMPROMISED’. I pay a merciful $15 for a generic antibiotic and make my way out, slowing to glance around the eerily vacant, unlit café by the door as I leave.

Symptoms of the infection don’t abate until I take the last day’s tablets, and a week after picking up the medication, I’m curled up in a ball on the living room sofa and back on the phone with the clinic. I’ll have to come in person this time, they say. Now as before, the appointment will cost somewhere between $130 and $400, but they couldn’t risk hazarding a guess. If my one-time $1,200 stimulus payment from the federal government had arrived even a couple of weeks later than it did, I’d be staying at home with cranberry concentrate supplements and hoping not to develop a kidney infection that would eventually become septic shock. After hanging up, I complain bitterly to my housemates, fondly remembering the kidney stone surgery in Scotland for which I paid nothing and indulging in a brief diatribe about the merits of nationalised healthcare to an audience that needs no persuading before reaching for my keys.

I arrive at the clinic to find a nurse standing outside querying people at the door.

‘Hi!’, she chimes brightly. ‘What’s your issue today?’

‘I’m here for a follow-up appointment about a persistent UTI’, I explain.

‘No other issues going on? No fever or cough or anything like that?’, she asks, an almost apologetic ‘I have to ask this question’ nested in her vocal inflection.

‘No’, I respond, smiling knowingly and shaking my head.

‘Ok, just have to check. Sorry for the violation of your privacy.’

She hates this. She holds the door open for me as I thank her and step into a near-empty reception room.

I sit down to fill out some paperwork and wait my turn. As I tick symptom boxes, a TV mounted high on the wall opposite the reception desk emits the familiar vocal drone of a news broadcast: ‘Nearly 47,000 now dead in the US from the Coronavirus, and the numbers are climbing’. The woman sat opposite me breathes heavily into her polka-dotted fabric face mask.

I’m taken through to be tested for signs of infection before seeing the same nurse practitioner I had met a week earlier through a screen. She refers me to a local lab for tests, but prescribes a different antibiotic to try until the results arrive. I pay the $170 consultation fee – a bit more than last week’s ‘telemedicine’ appointment – and then later, $17 for tests at the nearby lab and $15 for the second generic antibiotic.

There is a letter in the postbox when I get home. I ‘may qualify’ for a state-funded healthcare programme for low-income residents. The local social services office ‘may contact’ me. The letter doesn’t specify when, but the online application mentioned something about 45 days. In the meantime, any existing insurance policy must continue to be paid for, and steep tax fines will be levied against anyone who remains uninsured. Laying the letter aside, I pick up my phone to check what’s been happening back home (‘back home’ meant California when I was in the UK – now it’s the other way round). The death toll amongst medical practitioners continues to climb. The NHS, which still lacks adequate personal protective equipment for staff, is now funded in part by private citizens’ warm and fuzzy fundraisers – sort of like the Go Fund Me campaigns Americans use to pay medical bills, except cuter. Britons are still expressing their support by clapping for the NHS.

Five days later, I’m back on the sofa and trying to sit up without using any of my abdominal muscles. To my very great relief, the nurse practitioner makes good on her promise and prescribes a third antibiotic without requiring me to attend and pay for another consultation. The lab results came back, so hopefully this more specifically targeted drug will work.

Back ‘home’, Boris Johnson has returned to work after having recovered from his own bout of COVID-19. He urges Britons to hold their peace while the consequences of many years of funding cuts to the NHS, a dystopian ‘herd immunity’ response to the virus, and weeks too late, the implementation of a shelter in place policy play out. The news headlines prominently feature his name: have you heard that he and his partner have just had a baby?

Armchair Sociology

A series of short podcasts feature informal conversations on what kind of sociological imaginations might result during the course of these troubling times. ‘Armchair Sociology’ is of course becoming the name of the game, as we all cling to our computers and tablets and wear out our chairs. The idea of an ‘armchair expert’ is often used in a dismissive way of people who don’t do the real thing. But telling apart what is ’real’ sociology and what is armchair sociology has already been under considerable process of reconstruction, and present circumstances are multiplying the changes. See the blog post on ‘What’s happening to sociological imaginations?’ for the kind of topics covered in these conversations.