Just a week after Donald Trump took charge of the Oval Office in January 2017, Kim Kardashian responded to the newly appointed US President’s immigration ban by sharing a graphic on Twitter that showed 69 US citizens are killed on average in lawnmower accidents each year, compared with two killed by jihadist immigrants.
It had originally appeared in an article by Richard Todd in the Huffington Post. The number “69” was subsequently chosen by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in the UK for its inaugural “Statistics of the Year” award in 2017, as the numerical equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year”, from a list of nominations made by its members, staff and the public.
The RSS’s press release dated 18 December 2017 reads: “Todd and Kardashian’s use of these figures shows how everyone can deploy statistical evidence to inform, debate and highlight misunderstandings of risk in people’s lives.” Professor Liberty Vittert, a member of the RSS judging panel, said, “When you consider that this figure was put into the public domain by Kim Kardashian, it becomes even more powerful because it shows anyone, statistician or not, can use statistics to illustrate an important point.”
For the RSS’s award, the nominated statistic should ideally have a public interest dimension to it; it should be accurate, coherent and not misleading; it should ideally provide an interesting insight into a specific issue. The nominated statistic does not necessarily need to have been produced within that year but it does need to have become relevant in that time. The idea was to announce some numbers or statistics representing the zeitgeist of the corresponding year to highlight fake news and the power of numbers that dominated the lives and lifestyle of the people.
Well, the RSS has now announced its winning statistics for 2020. And, as one might expect, Covid-related statistics are dominating the list. Quite naturally, the “Word of the Year” chosen by different dictionaries in 2020 are also mostly associated with the pandemic. While Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com chose the word “pandemic” itself as this year’s “Word of the Year”, the choice of Collins English Dictionary is “lockdown”. In the year of so many seismic events, Oxford Dictionaries expanded its word of the year to encompass several “Words of an Unprecedented Year”, a list again dominated by many Covid-related words.
While choosing the numerical equivalent, the RSS’s choice of the International Statistic of the Year 2020 is, in fact, “332 days”, which is the length of time between scientists publishing the genetic sequence of Covid-19 (11 January 2020) and an effective vaccine being administered (8 December 2020). The judging panel chose this statistic as it highlights the remarkable efforts by the global scientific community in developing effective protection against Covid-19. Interestingly, some other Covid-related numbers were also chosen among the “highly commended statistics”. These are “5.5 million years”, “3 out of 5”, and “19%”.
Over three trillion minutes were estimated to be spent on Zoom globally in 2020, which is equivalent to around 5.5 million years; only three out of five people worldwide have basic handwashing facilities; and 19% adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic—almost double the average from before Covid. Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the RSS, said, “Covid has made statisticians of us all.”In fact, “When will there be a vaccine?” has certainly been a question on everybody’s lips this year. Liberty Vittert penned an opinion piece in The Conversation to explain why the statistic “332 days” was the clear, standout winner in the RSS’s list in 2020.
A vaccine usually takes years, often decades, to be developed. Even decades after the outbreak, we don’t have a vaccine for HIV/AIDS yet. The fastest vaccine development so far was possibly for mumps, which took about four years. After an exceptional year of terrible tragedy, economic disaster and sorrow, the world has now experienced the fastest vaccine development ever in the history of humanity. Professor Vittert thinks that it is due to the unprecedented government financial investment towards Covid vaccine development around the world.
It is a testament to this influx of billions of dollars, tremendous dedication and collaborative efforts of the scientific community. That seems great indeed. However, at the moment, we really don’t know how much these vaccines would succeed in bringing normalcy back. The reason, however, is also apparent from the statistic of the year, “332 days”, as the long-term safety and long-term efficacy of the vaccines are absolutely unknown and uncertain at the moment—again due to their hasty development.
Many people believe that the antibodies generated by the Covid vaccines might wane quickly, and the vaccines might fail to protect us from the disease beyond a few months. Let’s, however, hope for the best from this unprecedented effort of humanity in developing Covid vaccines. Some more important vaccine-related statistics, however, are likely to get media attention in this year for sure.
At the moment, after a year full of despair, the people of the world are keeping their fingers crossed to see the magic of those 332 days’ effort and dedication of various governments and scientific communities.
Atanu Biswas (email@example.com)
Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata