Global Health

Acceptable Deaths

2.46 million people died last year from diarrheal diseases.

1.34 million from tuberculosis.

1.21 million from road traffic accidents.

27 people died in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

15 in the West explosion.

3 in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Why did these last three drive so much attention and emotional response? Why didn’t the others?

Here’s a thought:

The recent tragedies all had a certain shock factor. 45 subsequent deaths were undeniably unexpected and traumatizing, eliciting an outpouring of media coverage and political attention. The others, however, were “normal” and therefore, “acceptable” deaths.

The first fatal car accidents made headlines. But today? Maybe local coverage on the 5 o’clock news.

The first roadside bomb in Baghdad was media-worthy. But the 27th?

When cholera broke out in Haiti in 2010, everyone knew. Everyone cared. The first deaths mattered.

This epidemic continues today – the worst of this disease in recent history – but we don’t hear about it. Haiti has seen more than 7,900 deaths from this pathogen since 2010 but they no longer elicit emotional response or media coverage from the international community, even though the death toll amounts to more than 150 times that of the Sandy Hook, West, and Boston tragedies combined. These deaths have joined countless others in being classified as acceptable.

3 people died, completely unexpectedly, in a bombing in Boston. Their deaths mattered.

And they absolutely should!

6 million children under 5 died last year.

How the fuck do theirs not?


3 thoughts on “Acceptable Deaths

  1. Its sad how the investment in and sensationalization of the later events by the media can produce more results than awareness of the much larger aforementioned problems. Lets think about how the media and political body values human life.

  2. Marshall says:

    Setting aside the debate of what makes a death “acceptable” or not, what would you like to see done? It seems like the media plays a large role in deciding what people are going to care about on any given day, but I’m not convinced there is a good way around this. The nature of news is to talk about what is new, not to report “people are still dying in Haiti” for 3 years straight. The only solution I see for mainstream media would be to have a monthly recap of all the different ways people are dying around the world, and suggestions for how the viewer could help.

    I think it’s worth noting that the first two statistics you listed are deaths caused by global human negligence. There is no particular person (everyone is to blame) or group to blame, and no specific people that we feel an emotional attachment to to mourn. In a way, the more people that die at once, the less relatable the event becomes. Honestly, I don’t even comprehend a difference between 100 deaths and 10,000. At some point it just becomes “a lot of people died”. In the last three examples you listed, it is easy to identify a perpetrator and a victim. You can imagine a new report saying “Person A killed Person B today. Person B lived in your country, and it could have been you or someone you knew, so you should feel bad for Person B and be mad at Person A.” Proximity probably shouldn’t matter, but there’s no denying that it does.

    Now I would like to ask, what do you do about this problem you have laid out? I’m asking honestly, I’m not trying to imply that you don’t do anything, because you have already written this blog which is a way of informing people and combating mainstream media, which shows that you do in fact care and are willing to do something.

    This response may seem cold, but what makes a death unacceptable? If a mother dies giving birth in a sub-par hospital, should that make the news? Should everyone everywhere cry and donate to building a new hospital, or do you just accept that shit happens? Death is inevitable. There are over 6 billion people on this earth, and every single one of them will at some point die. Which of these deaths matter?

    [I don’t think you are necessarily wrong in anything you’ve written, I just wanted to push on your beliefs and give you something to think about. Let me know what you agree with/disagree with. I’m not entirely sure if your point was that people should care about everyone that dies, or that the media does an awful job of accurately illustrating the state of the world. Or something else. Let me know!]

    • Hey man, good to hear from you!

      Awesome response by the way. I won’t pretend to know all (any?) of the answers, and it would likely take a few books to adequately respond to all of the points you brought up even if I did, haha! As far as the point of the post goes, it was more to ask questions rather than provide answers. It’s an immensely complex subject, death, and I just wanted to open up a dialogue on some things that had been bothering me recently.

      At the risk of sounding cynical, I think we have to ask what the nature of the news really is. They (being the news outlets) do tend to report “new” events over old, but I think this boils down to the fact that they report the events that attract the most viewers, and therefore advertising dollars. That the media is driven by a business model where quantity (of viewers) trumps quality (of the media itself), leads to an unavoidable bias in their reporting. More on all of that in this great book by Ryan Holiday: Imagine if a news channel did report something like what you mentioned each month. Would people even read/watch it? Or would they go somewhere else for something more interesting? Would they even do anything with the information? All of it’s already out there for anyone who wants to see it and yet the problems persist. I’m not sure how much of the issue is a result of disproportionate media coverage and how much it’s of human irrationality (more on this in a bit).

      I absolutely agree with two points you made. The first on having someone to blame and the other on the difference between 100 and a million deaths. What you referred to as human negligence, I’ve heard explained as “structural violence” by Paul Farmer (I wrote a post about him recently). I think you’re right in saying that we care more when we have someone to blame than when the “perpetrator” is structural or spread out over many individuals. As for the difference in numbers, some people call this the “identifiable victim effect.” That is, we can empathize better with an individual victim than we can with a million. It’s the reason that we don’t respond to statistics as well as to stories. Completely irrational from an economic perspective, but interesting nonetheless. Dan Ariely talks about all of this and lots more in Predictably Irrational ( I think you’d particularly like this book by the way.

      I won’t really go into the morality of death in general. Of course death is inevitable, so what does it really matter if someone dies earlier than another? This gets way philosophical, so I’ll just leave it at this: It’s not the fact that some people die earlier than others that’s inherently unjust, it’s that the distribution of premature deaths is far from randomly decided. If a child in Austin had the same chance of dying before 5 as one in Sierra Leone, the issue would be different. But the fact that such a quantity of preventable death occurs so disproportionately and predictably leads me to believe that there’s something inherently immoral going on. I’m not totally satisfied with this response however, and it’s something I’ll keep thinking about.

      As far as the response, I don’t know that there’s an easy answer. Personally however, this is a lot of my reasoning for going into a career in global health. On a societal level, I think that having these sort of conversations is a good start. The first step is admitting we have a problem, haha!

      Thanks again for the response and pushback! Sorry for the length and lack of organization in mine – I didn’t have time to make it shorter. I’d love to grab a beer sometime before I leave for the summer and chat about this kind of stuff more if you want!


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