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The Data on Death: How Perceived Causes Differ from Reality

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The saying goes that nothing in this world is certain except for death and taxes.

And rightfully so, the inevitability of death is a prominent fear for many humans around the world. After all, death is universal, mysterious, immutable, and sometimes sudden – and it can shake up life in ways that no other event can.

But is how we perceive death, along with its common portrayal in media, something that is accurate?

Perceptions vs. Reality

Like anything that is shrouded in mystery, death has accumulated its fair share of myths and half-truths that get baked into our stories, perceptions, and societies.

Even further, high-profile and tragic events like terrorist attacks, murders, and suicides dominate many aspects of the news cycle. As a result, the causes of death that media outlets are the most fixated on couldn’t be further from actual causes of human death as shown through statistics.

The following animation, which comes from Aaron Penne, compares three data sets to show that our worries and media coverage have become quite disproportionate from the actual data. The animation looks at the following:

  • Which causes do we worry the most about? (Google Search data)
  • Which causes are talked about in the media? (NYT and Guardian headlines)
  • What are actual causes of death in the U.S.? (CDC data)

And as you’ll see, the data is quite different for each source.

Causes of Death Animation

We worry about cancer 10x more than we worry about heart disease, but in reality both diseases kill roughly the same amount of people. Meanwhile, the media is fixated on terrorism, homicides, and cancer, but heart disease – which kills more than all put together – receives almost no coverage.

More Data on Death

Actual causes of death are quite different from personal and media perceptions, but this data is not absolute either. After all, how someone may die depends greatly upon other factors like age.

Here are causes of human death in the U.S. graphed by age group:

Death by age group in U.S.

The data shows that accidents are the leading cause of death for most ages up until 45 years old, at which case cancer and heart disease take over.

While the topic of death is grim, the above data and statistics can arguably help provide a more realistic outlook regarding one of life’s certainties. It also shows that humans and media are not necessarily rational about this topic, so it’s important to think about it independently if at all possible.

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COVID-19

How Many People Die Each Day?

COVID-19 deaths can be hard to interpret without context. This graphic shows how many people die each day globally, by cause.

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How Many People Die Each Day?

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the media continues to rattle off statistics at full force.

However, without a frame of reference, numbers such as the death toll can be difficult to interpret. Mortalities attributed to the virus, for example, are often measured in the thousands of people per day globally—but is this number a little or a lot, relative to typical causes of death?

Today’s graphic uses data from Our World in Data to provide context with the total number of worldwide daily deaths. It also outlines how many people who die each day from specific causes.

Worldwide Deaths by Cause

Nearly 150,000 people die per day worldwide, based on the latest comprehensive research published in 2017. Which diseases are the most deadly, and how many lives do they take per day?

Here’s how many people die each day on average, sorted by cause:

RankCauseDaily Deaths
#1Cardiovascular diseases48,742
#2Cancers26,181
#3Respiratory diseases10,724
#4Lower respiratory infections7,010
#5Dementia6,889
#6Digestive diseases6,514
#7Neonatal disorders4,887
#8Diarrheal diseases4,300
#9Diabetes3,753
#10Liver diseases3,624
#11Road injuries3,406
#12Kidney disease3,370
#13Tuberculosis3,243
#14HIV/AIDS2,615
#15Suicide2,175
#16Malaria1,698
#17Homicide1,111
#18Parkinson disease933
#19Drowning809
#20Meningitis789
#21Nutritional deficiencies740
#22Protein-energy malnutrition635
#23Maternal disorders531
#24Alcohol use disorders507
#25Drug use disorders456
#26Conflict355
#27Hepatitis346
#28Fire330
#29Poisonings198
#30Heat (hot and cold exposure)146
#31Terrorism72
#32Natural disasters26
Total Daily Deaths147,118

Cardiovascular diseases, or diseases of the heart and blood vessels, are the leading cause of death. However, their prominence is not reflected in our perceptions of death nor in the media.

While the death toll for HIV/AIDS peaked in 2004, it still affects many people today. The disease causes over 2,600 daily deaths on average.

Interestingly, terrorism and natural disasters cause very few deaths in relation to other causes. That said, these numbers can vary from day to day—and year to year—depending on the severity of each individual instance.

Total Daily Deaths by Country

On a national level, these statistics vary further. Below are the total deaths from all causes for selected countries, based on 2017 data.

how many people die each day
China and India both see more than 25,000 total deaths per day, due to their large populations.

However, with 34.7 daily deaths per million people each day, Russia has the highest deaths proportional to population out of any of these countries.

Keeping Perspective

While these numbers help provide some context for the global scale of COVID-19 deaths, they do not offer a direct comparison.

The fact is that many of the aforementioned death rates are based on much larger and consistent sample sizes of data. On the flipside, since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, daily confirmed deaths have fallen in a wide range between 272 and 10,520 per day—and there is no telling what could happen in the future.

On top of this variance, data on confirmed COVID-19 deaths has other quirks. For example, testing rates for the virus may vary between jurisdictions, and there have also been disagreements between authorities on how deaths should even be tallied in the first place. This makes getting an accurate picture surprisingly complicated.

While it’s impossible to know the true death toll of COVID-19, it is clear that in some countries daily deaths have reached rates 50% or higher than the historical average for periods of time:

excess deaths covid-19

Time, and further analysis, will be required to determine a more accurate COVID-19 death count.

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COVID-19

Where COVID-19 is Rising and Falling Around the World

Globally, the curve of COVID-19 cases is flattening, but individual countries vary considerably as new pockets of the world deal with the pandemic.

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Where COVID-19 is Rising and Falling Around the World

It’s been just over two months since New York declared a state of emergency, and global stock markets were hammered as the fears of a full-blown crisis began to take hold.

Since then, we’ve seen detailed, daily coronavirus coverage in most of the major news outlets. With such a wealth of information available, it can be hard to keep track of the big picture of what’s happening around the world.

Today’s graphic, adapted from Information is Beautiful, is an efficient look at where the virus is fading away, and where new infection hotspots are emerging.

The Ebb and Flow of Coronavirus Cases

First, the good news: the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases has started to level off on a global basis. This metric was rising rapidly until the beginning of April — but since then, it has plateaued and is holding steady (for now).

global new covid-19 cases

Of course, the global total doesn’t tell the whole story. Different countries, and even regions within countries, are in very different phases of dealing with the pandemic.

Let’s look at the current situation around the world.

New Cases: Falling

Many of the countries that experienced early outbreaks of COVID-19 are now seeing a drop-off in the number of new cases.

countries new covid-19 cases falling

Italy, which experienced one of the most severe outbreaks, is finally emerging from the world’s longest nationwide lockdown. Switzerland and the Netherlands both had some of the highest confirmed case rates per capita, but are now in better situations as fresh cases drop off.

The narrow, pointy curves exhibited by New Zealand and Austria give us an indication of where containment measures were successful at curbing the spread of the virus. This type of pronounced curve is less common, and is generally seen in nations with smaller populations.

New Cases: Leveling Off

For many of the world’s major economies, containing the spread of the virus has proven exceptionally difficult. Despite increased testing and lockdown measures, the United States still has one of the steepest infection trajectory curves. The UK also has a very similar new case curve.

countries new covid-19 cases steady

Even as countries’ curves begin to flatten and level off, there is still a danger of new flare-ups of the virus – as is now the case in South Korea and China. Even in Singapore, which saw early success in containing the virus, is experiencing a rise in new COVID-19 cases.

New Cases: Rising

Some countries – particularly developing economies – are only in the beginning stages of facing COVID-19’s rapid spread. This is a cause for concern, as many of the countries with steeply rising curves have larger populations and fewer resources to deal with a pandemic.

countries where new covid-19 cases are rising

In late March, as the virus was spreading rapidly through Europe, Russia appeared to have avoided an outbreak within its borders. Today, however, that situation is much different. Russia has the world’s steepest infection trajectory curve, with the number of cases on a course to double roughly every five days.

The countries in the image above have a combined population of 2.8 billion people, so as COVID-19 continues to spread through those countries, the eyes of the world will be watching.

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