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Corona Diaries: coronavirus – the actuary’s nightmare

May 20, 2020

The Roman emperor Vespasian, a pragmatic and cynical man according to his biographers, is famous for his last words: “I think I’m becoming a god”. If he was on his deathbed today, I suspect he might have said “I think I’m becoming a statistic”.

One thing I’ve learned from the coronavirus is that the whole idea of life expectancy is, to put it bluntly, a bollocks. I appreciate that it was never designed for the benefit of you or me. Our life expectancy is a matter of personal decisions and the vagaries of fortune rather than averages dreamed up by actuaries in some dusty old insurance company back office.

No doubt after the pandemic has died down there will be some report showing that life expectancy in various countries has changed. Mostly down I would imagine. But will it matter to us mortals that the mathematical models expect us to live to 83, not 85? And should we be worried about that downward trend?

National life expectancy trends are often quoted as a measure of the extent to which one society is better than another. An upward trend signifies better health, better health systems, perhaps even gross national happiness. If the number goes down, it’s a cue for hand-wringing and “what’s become of us?”.

For those of us who are inching closer towards becoming statistics, it means nothing beyond how much we might have to pay for our life insurance and when we can draw on our pensions.

But what the coronavirus has taught us is how fragile is our confident expectation that our kids will live longer, healthier lives, and that those of us who are approaching old age will actually satisfy the actuarial predictions.

When statistics show that the people being scythed down by the virus are mostly elderly, with “pre-existing conditions” – diabetes, heart and lung problems – we’re reminded that we’re not living longer than our forbears because we’re inherently healthier. It’s because we had our jabs when we were young, because we take antibiotics when we get pneumonia and because we’re being kept alive by medication that wasn’t available to our parents and grandparents.

In fact, all things being equal, you would probably find that provided you didn’t work down a mine or live in a smog-filled city, you would have been as healthy if not more so than your modern counterparts. You wouldn’t be addicted to sugar, you would have been far less likely to be a lard-arse and you would have been more likely to take exercise because you wouldn’t have owned a car.

The other day I watched a fascinating documentary on the death of Stalin. No, not Armando Iannuci’s comic masterpiece, but footage of the actual event. If you looked at the people mourning him all over the Soviet Union, you would have been hard put to find a fattie amongst them. Except, that is, among the leaders who were vying to succeed him. Bulganin, Beria, Malenkov and Khruschev were all lard-arses, sweating away in their heavy overcoats while keeping vigil over the fallen leader. Life was clearly good for the nomenklatura, even if for different reasons their life expectancy was hardly assured, as Beria discovered in front of a firing squad shortly thereafter.

When we look at the reasons why many of us are living longer, I suspect that it’s not so much a matter of “because of”. Rather, “in spite of”. Not because we’re busy jogging, eating the right foods, drinking our one glass of red wine a day and doing all the other things that the doctors tell us will help us to live long lives. Actually, a large number of us, despite the obesity, alcohol abuse and other bad habits that turn us into waddling, oxygenated caricatures of humanity,  are being propped up by medication. We rattle. And if it were not for pharmaceutical support and the genius of surgeons, we would fall over much earlier.

So all it takes is a virus for which there is no cure to remind us that life expectancy isn’t an endless upward curve. Our increasing resistance to antibiotics is a more insidious reminder, as bacterial infections that could once have been treated by penicillin are now wickedly difficult to shake off.

The virus not only shows us that life expectancy is nothing more than a comforting illusion. It also shatters another illusion. We’ve learned to assume that economies, and by implication our personal prosperity, will inevitably grow. Far from it. If we didn’t learn that from the 2008 crash, we’re learning it now as we face one of the most dramatic recessions in recorded memory.

It will be interesting – though that’s probably not the right way to put it – to see what effect a prolonged recession will have on the chances that a child born today will to reach a hundred. And also interesting to see how – speaking of Britain now – our diminished national finances will impact on our ability to fund the National Health Service. For how long will our much-loved NHS remain politically sacrosanct? And if cuts should come, will they affect those of the oldest generation being kept alive who might otherwise have faded away?

Those who live in parts of the world that are habitually ravaged by war, famine and natural disaster will be well aware that nothing in life should be taken for granted. But for some of us in the soft, sappy west, such a prospect might come as a surprise.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that none of us sits more easily on this mortal plane than those who came before us, for all the efforts of doctors, scientists and politicians.

Vespasian could have told you that. Three of his predecessors died in the course of one year. And they didn’t even get to be gods.

From → History, Social, UK

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    “Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? Not really for me. I’ll carry on rattling: 8 per day at the last count.

    My “long-term afflictions (ALD)” are also allowing me to work from home for a period which will finish when I’m vaccinated. Bring on THAT statistic, but there’s no hurry 🙂

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    “It will be interesting – though that’s probably not the right way to put it – ”
    I would say that’s exactly the way to put it.
    Remember the old Chinese curse…
    “May you live in interesting times.” Took me many years to come to an understanding of that one as a “curse”.
    Shouldn’t be as hard or take as long for those growing up now.

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