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People Are Not Numbers

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

My grandma's hand

A few years ago I attended a hospital's strategy workshop. There was a lot of lecturing from the podium from people in business suits and presenting of graphs and bullets on PowerPoint slides. Not once during the five hour session was a picture of an actual patient shown on the screen. In fact, patients were not even mentioned, not even once, except in the context of statistics or a data point on a graph.

I could have been at a strategy workshop for a tire factory. I walked out feeling disillusioned about how easily patients were be distilled into faceless numbers. The saddest thing of all? This was a strategy session for a children's hospital.

The same thing is happening with the communications about COVID from our public health officials. There is much talk about numbers of cases, infection rates and deaths.

I feel I have to remind us that these numbers are actual sick people. When the officials say they expect the numbers to go up with school opening, that means people are getting sick with an illness that we don't even understand. Real people. Not cases.

Then there are the 'deaths.' These are presented coldly as mortality rates. The six people who died today were followed by the comment... "five of latest people to die from COVID-19 were were seniors living in the province's long-term care system." Like because they were seniors living in long-term care, their deaths from COVID are okay. This is a shameful footnote to add to the report of the death of human beings, who were someone's grandma, father, uncle, friend.

I've been treated as a number many times in health care. I've even been given a deli-counter style ticket and called by a number instead of my name. This growing trend towards referring people as numbers of cases is disheartening.

The New York Times has created a section called Those We've Lost that offers pictures and short dedications to people who have died from COVID-19. There's a Twitter account solely for recognizing health care workers in the US who have died from COVID. Global News posted COVID-19 Survivor stories way back in April.

It is a start. I want to hear more stories from people who had COVID - from both the media AND our governments and health authorities. Referring to patients as numbers instead of people disparages their suffering. For people who have died, it is an insult to their memories.

Why do officials in health care resort to referring to people who are sick as numbers or statistics? Often they hide behind the excuse of patient confidentiality to avoid talking about patients as human beings. Are folks afraid if they know someone's story, or even say their name, they might actually feel something? This is a sad reflection on the lack of humanity in our health system.

This approach is literally dehumanizing people. People's lives deserve to be so much more valued than being whittled down into a number at a press conference.


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