Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Deaths Data

For the 2009 fall semester the University asked me to add to my teaching load one of what it was calling "First Year Seminars." These were small-section classes for entering first years taught by selected professors from a variety of colleges and departments, with subject matter of the professor's choice.

My choice? General Semantics. It probably had not been taught at Iowa since my father's lectures in the 1940s and '50s, when it was said to have been one of the most popular among students, and chosen for broadcast throughout the coverage area of the University's AM radio station, WSUI.

My book, What Do You Mean? and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking For Us [Prairie Lights; Amazon], created for that seminar, consisted of four chapters from my father's writing and eight of my own. (Two K-12 teachers, present for my presentation with that title at a Herbert Hoover Presidential Library event in 1997, used these ideas in their teaching "American History from the Perspective of Minorities and Women," which course was described in a third person's doctoral dissertation and subsequent book.)

This is not the time to attempt a full explanation of general semantics. Perhaps that should be saved for an essay on its relevance as a necessary first step toward the elimination of systemic racism. But this brief quote at the beginning of the first chapter may be useful:
"General semantics" is not about "semantics" -- as in the expression, "Oh, you're just arguing about semantics." It's not about "defining" words, their historical etymology, or cognates. General semantics deals with language as human behavior; for example, the disparity between what we say (that largely reflects what's going on inside our brain) and the "reality" we think we're describing -- and the consequences of that confusion.
With this long introduction, and short explanation, let's take a look at "what we mean" and "how we know" about the number of Iowans' deaths from COVID-19.

What Do You Mean?

For the most part we know what we mean by "dead," the word and the reality are fairly clear (though there is some ambiguity in cases of "brain dead" and other variations).

The official State of Iowa "Covid-19 in Iowa" site labels its data under "Current Cases": "Individuals Tested," "Individuals Positive," "Total Recovered," and "Total Deaths."

We can assume that "deaths" means an individual's death was in some way associated with COVID-19. If a person has tested positive for COVID-19, had symptoms associated with the virus, no other medical conditions weakening their immunity, and died, it would be difficult not to add their number to "total deaths." But what if they had not been tested before they died, but had one or more of the symptoms of COVID-19 at the time of death? Are they part of "total deaths"? What if (whether tested or not) they had COVID-19 symptoms that weakened their immunity, but also preexisting conditions (say, pneumonia)? Is whoever determines "cause of death" free to report they died of pneumonia and not record it as part of "total deaths" (from COVID-19)? In other words, does it make a difference in the counting whether someone has died from COVID-19 or just with COVID-19 -- along with, perhaps, many other conditions? [Chart credit: Nicholas Johnson, using State of Iowa data.]

Where and by whom, within the healthcare system, is the determination made as to whether a deceased should be counted among "total deaths" or not? Is there, somewhere, written instructions regarding these choices? Are they publicly available online? If so, is there any oversight of the compliance and noncompliance with these procedures and definitions?

How Do You Know?

There are powerful incentives for elected officials (state, county and local), meat packing plants, nursing homes, prisons, and other institutions to minimize their responsibility for the spread of this global pandemic, Americans infected, with the stresses it has created on our hospitals, healthcare workers, families and businesses of all sizes -- not to mention the more than 116,000-and-rapidly-climbing deaths of Americans.

The Iowa governor announced that nursing homes need not report cases or deaths unless they had an "outbreak" -- which she defined a three or more cases. The Nebraska governor explained that packing plants did not have to report at all. "Vice President Mike Pence encouraged governors on Monday to adopt the administration’s claim that increased testing helps account for the new coronavirus outbreak reports, even though evidence has shown that the explanation is misleading." "Pence Tells Governors to Repeat Misleading Claim on Outbreaks,"New York Times, June 16, 2020.

What is the process by which (and by whom) deaths -- in general, not just COVID-19-related -- are reported? Who reports, and to whom, when someone dies in a hospital, at home, or elsewhere? What oversight is there for these alternative reporting channels -- hospitals, long term living and nursing home facilities, funeral homes, those performing autopsies, police at the scene of an accident causing death, someone who dies at home?

Where can one go online to find, say, total deaths in Iowa for the past five years, by months? (The latest I found was 2017, broken out by conventional causes of death.) An alternative way to measure COVID-19-related deaths would be to look at Iowa's mortality statistics for February through June for 2016-2020. One would need to correct for variations in 2020 data from prior years' averages; for example, a decrease in deaths from automobile accidents during 2020 due to less driving during the pandemic. Having done that, it would be possible to see any increase in total deaths during those months in 2020 that could rationally be related to COVID-19. As such, it could be one way of confirming (or questioning) the State's official "total deaths" statistic.

At a time when trust is in increasingly short supply, one recalls President Ronald Reagan's advice, borrowing the Russians' expression, "trust, but verify." One of the first steps in verification is to ask the two questions, "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

# # #

Monday, June 08, 2020

A Response to Racism

A Response to Racism in America
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, June 8, 2020, p. A6
[As submitted; bracketed words deleted by The Gazette from hard copy edition for space]

Racism, like COVID-19, is [also] a global pandemic. It has been a systemic element of American culture for 400 years. Like the virus there is neither vaccine nor treatment, it spreads throughout the world in billions of incidents [every day], and as we’ve just been reminded, it can also kill. (Reproduction of handbill advertising a Charleston, South Carolina, slave auction in 1769. Credit: public domain, Wikimedia.org.)

What can we do?

One more impassioned speech or “study” won’t eradicate racism. But, as Thomas Paine said, "words pile up and then people do things." His words in "Common Sense" caused them to fight the Revolutionary War. Words are the "first step in a journey of a thousand miles" – [a journey] seldom completed on the first try.

Following similar protests for similar reasons, in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson created the Milton Eisenhower Commission with members capable of putting the national interest above political advantage. Their remarkable staff produced both the Commission's final report ("To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility") and 11 Staff Reports exposing [our] racism [pandemic] in numerous institutions.

Two [of those 11] volumes addressed "Violence and the Media."

As [an FCC commissioner] a Federal Communications Commission member at the time, I brought the [life] experience of being raised in the 1930s and ‘40s as an “anti-racist” in the midst of Iowa City's "northern racism," plus my disgust at the “southern racism” during my 1950s stay in the South. [during the 1950s.]

At the start [beginning] of my FCC efforts, broadcasting was one of the [single] most racist and sexist [among] American industries.

Change required improving licensees’ hiring practices, putting blacks [Blacks] in front of as well as behind the cameras, increasing the odds of blacks [Blacks] owning a radio or television station, enforcing station licensees' responsibility for meaningful community service, providing public access to [the] mass media (e.g., license renewal challenges, Fairness Doctrine, public access channels on cable, and low power community FM stations [, like KICI in Iowa City]) -- and much more.

It's time to do this again -- focusing on police practices and blacks' [Blacks] disproportionate incarceration, yes, but the other dark corners of systemic racism as well: food, housing, healthcare, child care, education and training, employment, transportation, payday loans. [– and much, much more.]

And fueling racism is how those enjoying white privilege [perceive and] use language; how we think, talk and teach our children. As [the lyrics of] “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” explained in the 1958 musical “South Pacific,” “You've got to be taught/Before it's too late/Before you are six/Or seven/Or eight/To hate all the people/Your relatives hate ..." [/You've got to/Be carefully taught.”]

[Is there hope?] Can it be done? [It has been done; progress] Progress was achieved in my little corner of the media’s racist ruins. Of course, much of that progress was undone once I left -- along with [President] Johnson's much more significant progress.

[President] Johnson was fully aware of the political consequences for the Democratic Party from his civil rights efforts. [(a party long dependent on the support of the southern states).] As he put it to an aide, "There goes the South for a generation." How many of our current elected officials can you imagine being willing to do the equivalent for the good of the nation?

What do we need? More political and institutional leaders willing to put the defeat of racism above politics, profits, and position. More understanding of the thousands of forms and locations of the racism virus. More willingness to change each of them, one at a time – and to keep at it as long as it takes.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City, was an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org
# # #

Note: On this morning's (June 8) Gazette editorial page I share the space with but one other author, Condoleezza Rice. So far as I can find out now, her column is not now available online. If I later find that it is, I will put a link here. Meanwhile, she and I end what each of us have to say on a similar note. She concludes, "What is your question about the impact of race on the lives of Americans? And what will you do to find answers?"

# # #