Covid-19, Tragedy and Statistics

What comes to mind as you make your way through the Government of Kerala’s Covid-19 Battle dashboard? Some have mentioned the elegant, uncluttered design, others the manner in which so much data has been showcased in an unintimidating way. My first thought was nothing related to design or data. It was: how refreshingly human.

For weeks now, I’ve relied on the covid visualizer app to track the spread of the virus around the globe. It’s so simple to use. You move your finger over the country or territory you want data for, and you get the active cases, number of deaths, and the figure for recoveries. But it always bothered me that there were no layers beneath.

There’s not a shred of proof to support it, but for nearly 75 years, Joseph Stalin has been credited with saying: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Each time I look at a Covid tracker, that’s the feeling I get. Except, these are not just statistics.

This was some mother’s son. That was someone’s girlfriend. The nurse who died was a favourite aunt. These are losses that some may never get over. Not cold digits or colours on a bar graph. That’s what I liked most about the Kerala dashboard. It showcases a lot of numbers, sure, but these are figures tinged with humanity. They aren’t just statistics.

Look closely at the language used, for a start. There are no ‘migrant workers’ — what an appalling term to use about your own countrymen, most of them engaged in the most essential economic activities. The Kerala dashboard calls them Guest Labourers. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that the state has treated these guests far better than others, ensuring that they get food, shelter and emotional support.

The quarantine reports, test results, hotspots and daily reporting of cases are basic hygiene, or should be, for a site such as this. No, the really eye-catching aspects of the dashboard are the add-ons.

The Community Kitchen tracks how many meals have been served a day, including home deliveries to the elderly and infirm. Another section informs you how many of the destitute and homeless have been rehabilitated. The Social Volunteer Force says that well over 300,000 people have taken on tasks such as food delivery, emergency assistance and help in hospitals. The vast majority of these volunteers are in the 20–30 age group. So much for self-absorbed-millennial clichés.

But the most impressive section by far is Psychosocial Support, which tracks the kind of counselling that has been provided during these weeks of lockdown. The calls have been for everything from depression and anxiety to social-stigma issues faced by those infected or in quarantine. The targeted services include parents of children with special needs, disaster management staff who stare death in the face daily, and guest labourers struggling thousands of miles from home.

Other Covid trackers only consider those with the virus. But a far greater number are affected by the lockdown. Millions of jobs have already been lost, relationships are frayed and the opportunities to vent that ‘normal’ socialising provides just aren’t there. From the smallest kids to the most mature adults, weeks of lockdown can get to anyone. It takes more than a bit of sensitivity to recognise that the victims aren’t just lying in hospital beds.

Ultimately, it comes down to how you view governance. The Latin gubernare means “to direct, rule, guide, govern” or “to steer, to pilot”. Most politicians are fascinated by the ‘rule’ and ‘govern’ aspects of the word. They don’t really understand that governments also have a duty of care to citizens, especially those that most need help.

What I also loved was the absence of propaganda on the page. The jokes may be about North Korea and their Great/Dear Leaders, but Indians cede ground to no one in their love of personality cults. It’s almost expected that a page such as this would have a politician staring smugly at you. The absence of such an eyesore is most refreshing.

This isn’t about comparisons though, or urging everyone to climb on the ‘Kerala Model’ bandwagon. What the dashboard shows us is that it’s possible to share a wealth of information with interested citizens while being humane and empathetic. A pandemic has to be fought on several different levels. Reducing it to three columns of cases, deaths and recoveries may give eye-catching headlines, but it misses out so many other narratives.

In these black-and-white times, a little nuance is a beautiful thing.