One of the features about COVID arguments is the tendency on the Right to throw in remarks that are supposed to be common sense, but which are very revealing when you take a step back and examine them.
In these remarks, numbers are often thrown around with complete disregard for what they actually amount to. A model for this is one Donald Trump’s sentences where he’s talking about big numbers; and he can’t help but expand them in series; like an eight year old does in the playground – millions, billions, gazillions. This works on the difficulty most of us have in envisaging and comparing numbers beyond those we can comfortably grasp from everyday life; so qualitative differences are easily obscured or missed because both numbers translate as “lots”.
One of these frequent flyers is the notion that, as we can’t have a risk free society, it is perfectly alright to let the COVID virus rip – often posed as if this is a test of moral fibre. The example of socially acceptable risk that is habitually trotted out is that of traffic accidents; on the lines that if we are prepared to go out on the roads every day we should equally be prepared to go into a crowded cafe and take a deep breath.
In this argument, the first – and most obvious – point as far as the UK is concerned is that casualties from Coronavirus so far are qualitatively greater than road accidents. Official Government figures for the UK show over 43,000 deaths from COVID19 in 2020. In 2019, there were 1,752 deaths from road accidents. (1) Deaths from COVID in the UK are more than twenty times greater than those from traffic accidents.
There has been no significant variation in this level for the last ten years in the UK – as increased safety measures like 20mph limits have been counterbalanced by an increase in traffic.
The second point is whether we should consider the level of deaths from road accidents to be socially acceptable or take them for granted.
This is particularly the case when you consider that on a global scale, traffic accidents are a far more significant cause of death. The WHO reports that around 3,700 people die every day from road accidents around the world. That is below the current daily death rate for Coronavirus, but in the same ball park. (2)
It is surely entirely coincidental that the people arguing most strongly that road deaths are an acceptable price to pay for living in a modern society also think the same of COVID19 and are so often those in social strata least vulnerable to either. Your perspective on dying on a ventilator or being being flattened by an SUV seems to depend on how far you are at risk of the first, whether you drive an SUV or walk; or whether you live in a part of the world that has robust highway safety measures in place or not. 90% of the worlds traffic accidents happen in middle and low income countries – three times higher than the rate in wealthy countries (and the economic impact of this has been reported as greater than the total amount they receive in aid). (2) How often does a risk become more acceptable the less the person grandstanding is exposed to it? As the old Irish expression has it – “Its easy to sleep on another man’s wound.”
On a global scale then, the carnage on the roads is a threat that requires urgent action to reduce it.
Even in the UK, the scale of deaths on the roads dwarfs those from Industrial accidents. 12 times as many.
So, while COVID is a significantly greater risk than road accidents in the UK, road accidents themselves are in a different league than all the industrial accidents in the country put together. That also requires attention when considering transport policy as well as health and safety. Part 2 follows.