Nina Martin, ProPublica - Counting COVID

Nina Martin, ProPublica
Counting COVID


Most of you have probably heard of Bishop Berkeley’s famous philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear, is there a sound?”

As the Iraq War laid waste to that country from 2003 to 2011, a couple of researcher-statisticians, Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda, upped the moral ante by raising this harder question: If thousands of people are killed in a war, and no one bothers to count them, does that produce a more culpable silence than Bishop Berkeley’s falling tree?

To moot the philosophical question and answer the harder real-life one, Dardagan and Sloboda started a nongovernment organization called Iraq Body Count (IBC) “to record civilian deaths resulting from the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.”  They collated media accounts for “deaths attributable to coalition and insurgent military action, sectarian violence and criminal violence … resulting from the breakdown in law and order which followed the coalition invasion.”

As of February 2019, the IBC had recorded between 183,000 – 205,000 “excess” civilian deaths, the hugely higher number of lives lost in Iraq after the war started, compared to the years before.

From the day Dardagan and Sloboda began their project, they were attacked from the right for allegedly overcounting, and from the left, for allegedly undercounting the Iraq War death toll.  But, by and large, all the critics began their arguments by citing as a baseline, the IBC’s figures.

Americans can argue the politics and prosecution of the war, but the work of IBC gave the arguments a grounding – not in ideology or wish-fulfillment – but in grim reality. Before IBC, most discussions of the human costs of the war in Iraq were fact-free bullshit.

When it comes to the grim reality of today’s global Coronavirus pandemic, we are buried in facts, or at least, figures.  Every day the count of positive tests is updated for COVID-19 infections everywhere from zip codes and counties, to nation-states and continents. And the same for deaths, new and growing numbers every day.

The statistics have become politicized. Republicans call the official count inflated. Democrats, and most public health professionals, think the real casualty count is higher, but again, all start their arguments referencing the standard counts.

But there’s so much the standard counts leave out.  Like, which are the most dangerous jobs? Working in a nursing home, was the Washington Post’s answer, which they could back up because Congress passed a law that nursing homes have to tell the CDC about infections and deaths of residents and staff.  Otherwise … suffice it to say in 4 out of 5 COVID-19 deaths, the CDC has no idea how or where the deceased earned a living.

Another classic form of American auto-lobotomy – “Don’t ask; Don’t know.”



Nina Martin covers sex and gender issues for ProPublica. She joined the staff in September 2013 after spending much of the last decade at San Francisco magazine as articles editor (since 2007) and executive editor (2003-2005). She won a 2017 George Polk Award, and 2018 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Martin has been a reporter and editor specializing in women’s legal and health issues for more than 30 years. Her early career included stints at The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, and the International Herald Tribune. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including Health, Mother Jones, Elle, and The Nation.




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