Cholera, Corona and Trust in Numbers

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Joris Vandendriessche

Published Mar 31, 2021


This essay is a historical reflection on epidemiological statistics and the ways in which these represent health in a collective way. It compares the use of such statistics in the current COVID-19 epidemic with the use of numbers during the cholera outbreaks of the nineteenth century. Its main point is that health statistics have been (and still are) fundamental to the establishment of a notion of ‘public health’ and to the construction of epidemics as social events. At the same time, such statistics - located as they are at the intersection of science, media, and politics - struggle to take into account people’s often very different individual experiences of coping with disease. While today more varied health data is circulated to a wider audience, and at a far higher speed than in the past, the format of constructing an epidemic through statistics is still very much present, including some of the limitations inherent to this approach (e.g. generalizations about social groups).

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