Coronavirus, Disease Burden, and the New York Times

So, UChicago just canceled their entire spring term, migrating all classes to online platforms and sending students home after we take winter quarter finals next week. Suddenly, I have one week to say bye to all the friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the last four years. And graduation? Senior week? The concerts and shows we’ve put together? Friends with on-campus jobs? Friends who can’t fly home? The coronavirus is deadly, but right now it’s hard for students to look past their own uncertain situation.

The most difficult part of comprehension is contextualization. You can’t open the news without being blasted by the hundreds of thousands of cases, and thousands of deaths. I think we tend to judge a particular threat based on how frequently we see it in the news. Global diabetes causes over 1.5 million deaths yearly, road traffic deaths exceed 1.2 million, and suicides are nearly 800,000. Coronavirus is at 5,000 now, and growing. Based on exposure in the news, would you have been able to rank these by their burden?

The university and global communities should be laser-focused on containing COVID-19, but I’m disappointed we don’t see more widely publicized efforts to improve road safety or mental health during “normal times.” A fraction of the bandwidth that the coronavirus receives could revolutionize our awareness of issues that burden our world. A fraction of the containment efforts would save thousands of lives.

I used the awesome New York Times Article Search API to search for different keywords relevant to major causes of death. The number of results among NYT articles (since 1851) are plotted against estimates of global deaths, classified by the keyword.

There is absolutely nothing scientific about this. I only wanted to gain an intuition for the scale of disease deaths vs. news presence. (Remember that the coronavirus has only been on the scene for months, while other keywords have had decades to build up news hits.)

Data and R code is here.