Sunday, March 13, 2011

Risk and death

Like everyone else, I spent much of Friday (and indeed yesterday) following the events in Japan. I too was shocked and appalled, and frightened, by the force of Nature unleash'd (as the poet said) and the — what to call it? — the futility and uselessness of our technology and science in dealing with it. What exactly should we find awesome about nuclear power or the theory of quantum mechanics if neither can hold back a single wave?

I was also observing myself as I watched the reports, noting my cowering fear of the events and my horror at the rising death toll. I found myself starting to worry about earthquakes, anywhere and everywhere, remembering that there had been one here eight years ago — it was trivially minor, most people slept through it — and feeling exposed to a terrible and immediate risk. I realized as I watched that this was basically the same reaction I'd had to 9/11, and with that came the thought that this risk too was probably vastly overstated.

Let me be clear: the death of a thousand people in an afternoon is a tragedy. I am shocked and appalled, but the thing is this: thinking of their deaths started me thinking about our own. We are alive, and for most of us death is (fortunately) a singular and very rare event. We do not see that there are people dying all around us, all the time.

People die, and they do so in far greater numbers than we know. The mortality rate for Japan in 2010 was estimated at 9.83 per thousand*; given the population of 126.8 million, that means that that 1.24 million people in Japan were statistically expected to die during that year.

That's an amazing figure. I was astonished, I'd have been surprised if it were a tenth that many. But let's go on.

That works out to some 23970 deaths per week, 3424 deaths every single day. A thousand people die in Japan every seven hours, every day of every week of the year.

The earthquake and tsunami were terrible, yes, horrifying and appalling and deeply saddening. They were significant events, but they are not a significant risk. We mourn the victims of the tsunami because of the manner and the brutal suddenness of their deaths; who but their immediate families mourns the many thousands of people who died in hospitals across the world on Friday? Or the vastly greater number who died without benefit of medical care, from hunger and neglect?

* The source is Index Mundi.
You didn't ask, but I'll tell you the comparative figures anyway:
USA: 8.38 per 1000 = 2599476 per year = 1000 deaths every 3.3 hours
Germany: 11 per 1000 = 912230 per year = 1000 deaths every 9.5 hours
Canada: 7.87 per 1000 = 265219 per year = 1000 deaths every 33 hours

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Blogger Zhoen said...

The damage, whatever the individual cost, is to the society as a whole, a whole area broken past simple repair.

I tend to revert to gallows humor, and half expect plague to break out next, with locusts to follow. It's not funny, but I want to giggle in horror.

March 13, 2011 at 5:33:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

I too look at big numbers, and then think of the number in the US that die in car accidents daily. Not even thinking of 'normal' end of life dying in hospitals/hospice/homes.

March 29, 2011 at 5:48:00 p.m. GMT+2  

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