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The Grim History of Counting the Dead During Plagues

In the spring of 1665, an Englishman named Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he’d been “to the coffee-house, where all the news is of … the plague growing upon us in this town; and some of the remedies against it: some saying one thing and some another.” The plague had swept through much…

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The Grim History of Counting the Dead During Plagues

In the spring of 1665, an Englishman named Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he’d been “to the coffee-house, where all the news is of … the plague growing upon us in this town; and some of the remedies against it: some saying one thing and some another.” The plague had swept through much of England and Europe repeatedly that century. News of the latest wave would have reached Londoners through the running tallies of plague deaths featured in the earliest newspapers and in government documents known as “mortality bills.”

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Jacqueline Wernimont is the Distinguished Chair of the Digital Humanities and Social Engagement at Dartmouth College. Wernimont is the author of Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media, a media history that uncovers the stories behind the tools and technologies we use to count, measure, and weigh our lives and realities.

In every pandemic since the 16th century, people have tried to tally the dead—and then they’ve argued over how to properly count disease-related deaths and what those death-toll numbers really mean. Pepys’ London was no exception. The weekly accounts of the number of deaths in the city were voluminous, messy, and, suspected of being subject to human error and corruption. They were collected by parish clerks and “searching women” with little specialized expertise and working at grave risk to their own health. But Pepys and other Londoners depended on these local, near real-time, and sometimes contradictory running death counts as a kind of civic algorithm that could help them program their shopping, travel, and business dealings while avoiding plague-stricken districts of the growing metropolis.

For nearly as long as we have been counting the dead in pandemics, people have worked to create tools to evaluate the data quickly and easily. Data tabulations, summaries, and visualizations work not only to manage the scale of pandemic death counts, but also the economic impacts of a deadly outbreak. Just three years before Pepys’s journey to the coffeehouse, his contemporary, John Graunt, had published his massive Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, which had taken the weekly Mortality Bills from 1604 to 1660 and aggregated them into a large data set and life table. While Graunt is often celebrated now as an innovator in vital statistics and demography, he began his career as a haberdasher—a men’s clothier—and his interest in viral outbreaks largely centered on their business impact.

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Graunt observed that regular mortality counts were an index by which the “state of the health of the city may at all times appear” so that “the Rich might judge of the necessity of their removal, and Trades-men might conjecture” on their future business prospects. Eager to secure the favor of political patrons and the English King, Graunt created what may be the first demographic and epidemiological arguments out of those church burial numbers. Like many right now, Graunt was eager to argue that “the troublesome seclusions of the Plague-time” posed unwarranted “vast inconveniences,” and he was eager to present the cycles of plague deaths as predictable enough to aid those planning university sessions, court proceedings, and major public events.

Major epidemic diseases have long served as an occasion for business and government entities to collaborate on pushing for new public surveillance regimes and metrics. Prior to the late 19th century, American mortality statistics were gathered nationally only in the 10-year census; they were otherwise gathered by smaller municipalities and religious communities. Then came the Cuban-American yellow fever epidemic of 1878, resulting in both the National Quarantine Act and the first ever Bulletin of Public Health, which would later become the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The Bulletin, like the mortality bills, was designed to give governors and port authorities insight into the health—literal and metaphorical—of international shipping trades. Outside of major port cities, where business was driving health surveillance, there was poor enrollment of state-based government health offices, and deaths in subsequent epidemics were greatly undercounted as a result.

The 17th-century plague tormented Anglo-American and European nations for at least 60 years. Unlike the 1878 Yellow Fever outbreak, which was quashed with extraordinary nonvoluntary colonial exterminations of mosquito vectors, the plague ravaged communities episodically for more than a generation. Pepys’s diary entry suggests that despite having the benefit of Graunt’s statistical analysis, he and his contemporaries understood that messy information better matched the reality on the ground than the “clear” data that Graunt argued could prevent business closures and home confinements.

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As heirs to Graunt’s hubris, we are urgently in need of ways to represent the uncertainty of our counting and classifying practices to the general public and policy makers. Rather than data collection efforts that mask incompleteness and confusion, we need language that demands we get comfortable with not yet knowing. At the same time, we need the small and local data that can help us determine how to best go about our lives.

National numbers can be helpful, but also incredibly deceptive. As many have observed, US cases appear to be in decline when New York City is included, but they clearly show the opposite when that major early-outbreak city is excluded. National numbers may well be important for government and international trade, but we need numbers closer to the homes where we currently shelter to guide day-to-day decisions. We need state and locality information like that of Pepys and his coffeehouse friends, so that we know if Covid-19 infections grow in our towns. This includes demanding demographic details to better know who amongst us is sick and dying and why. 17th-century authors recognized that poverty and cramped living conditions correlated with higher epidemic mortality rates.

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Even as we seek better local and small-scale data, we must also understand that uncertainty will continue to be a feature of our data-driven lives. Those who are trained in the processes and practices of classifying and gathering data know all too well that counting is an imperfect practice. But uncertainty metrics do not translate well to public information, either in prose or in visualizations.

Instead we have numbers and graphs with clear, whole counts that are reassuringly concrete. Just like Graunt’s hope that the English government would open up his clothing shop and allow the streets of London to fill with commerce again, we have many today who point to oversimplified national numbers to suggest that we can and should open up service sectors and lift shelter-in-place orders. Too often, the reported statistics leave out demographic data, obscuring the enormous racializing and class-based impacts of Covid-19 infections.

We absolutely need accurate accounting of Covid-19 infections, illnesses, deaths, and recoveries. We also need to recognize who and what end these counts serve. When they are being used to reassure us that our “vast inconveniences” are unnecessary, we would do well to be more like Samuel Pepys and collect all of the messy, difficult, and detailed news we can find.


WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.


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Trump’s Tweets Force Twitter Into a High-Wire Act

The feud between Twitter and Donald Trump keeps escalating. Days after Twitter drew the president’s ire by applying a fact-checking label to one of his tweets—prompting a retaliatory executive order from Trump—the platform went even further. On Friday morning, it flagged a Trump tweet for violating its rules and implemented measures to keep it from…

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Trump’s Tweets Force Twitter Into a High-Wire Act

The feud between Twitter and Donald Trump keeps escalating. Days after Twitter drew the president’s ire by applying a fact-checking label to one of his tweets—prompting a retaliatory executive order from Trump—the platform went even further. On Friday morning, it flagged a Trump tweet for violating its rules and implemented measures to keep it from going viral, while keeping the tweet up in the name of public interest. It’s a move that attempts to strike a thoughtful balance. But it also gets Twitter deeper into a messy conflict that there may be no easy way out of.

The tweet that finally crossed Twitter’s line came just after midnight on Friday morning, in response to the escalating riots in Minneapolis following the apparent murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer. Trump suggested that he might deploy the National Guard and warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase attributed to Walter Headley, a Miami police chief in the 1960s who bragged about using “police brutality” against rioters. Twitter soon covered up Trump’s tweet with a label warning that it violated a rule against glorifying violence. Users had to click through to see the contents, and couldn’t reply to it, like it, or retweet it without adding comment.

While Twitter first suggested it could take such a step nearly a year ago, this was the first time it applied a label to a presidential tweet. Predictably, the move only enraged Trump and his allies more. It also didn’t satisfy many Trump critics, who have long called for Twitter to take stronger steps, like suspending his account. But while it may seem like a half-measure, Twitter’s decision is less arbitrary, and more logical, than it might appear.

Understanding what Twitter did requires making sense of the interaction of two separate company policies. First, Twitter found that Trump’s tweet violated its rule against “glorification of violence,” which targets content that could inspire real-world violent acts, especially against minorities. Ordinarily Twitter policy would dictate the removal of the tweet and temporary suspension of the offending account, neither of which happened to Trump. That’s where the second policy comes in. Last June, Twitter carved out a “public interest exception” in which tweets that violate the rules can stay up, subject to a notice like the one placed on Trump’s tweet this morning. The exception only applies to government officials or candidates for office with more than 100,000 followers and verified accounts. According to the policy, the goal is to flag harmful material while preserving Twitter as “a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.” Twitter still reserves the right to take down tweets that it deems too dangerous to preserve, as it recently did with coronavirus-related disinformation tweeted by the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela.

So Twitter determined that Trump broke a rule, but his tweet also qualified for the public interest exception. The result: a paradox in which Twitter appears simultaneously to be singling Trump out and giving him special treatment. If the average user had tweeted the same thing as Trump, the tweet may never have been noticed, let alone flagged. At the same time, if a tweet like that by a normal user was flagged, the company would most likely delete it entirely, and maybe even suspend the user’s account. Trump’s status as president, in other words, pushes the platform toward an enforcement that’s both stricter and more lenient.

But there’s a counterintuitive logic to treating public officials differently. To begin with, there are fewer of them, so it’s easier. “The starting point on this is having a clear, principled handle on public figures,” says Sam Gregory, program director at Witness, a tech-focused human rights organization. “That should be the easiest place to start.” Gregory also pointed out that the words of public officials have the most potential to cause actual real-world harm. That makes Twitter’s previous hands-off approach—and Facebook’s continued refusal to take any action on statements by politicians—especially questionable. “In a weird way, they’ve avoided handling the people who have the largest megaphone,” Gregory says. “Often, [incitement to violence] is coming from the top. It’s coming from senior figures in India when you’ve got anti-Muslim violence, senior figures in Burma when you’ve got anti-Rohingya violence, and it’s coming seemingly from senior figures in the United States.”

At the same time, Gregory says that activists around the world have argued for something like Twitter’s compromise position. “If you take down either false or harmful content, there’s no way of fighting back against it and counter-intervening—it’s sort of invisible,” he says.

Twitter is attempting to strike a delicate balance between two conflicting values. “There’s newsworthiness, there’s interest in knowing what he’s thinking and knowing what he’s saying right as he’s thinking and saying it,” says Tiffany C. Li, a visiting professor at Boston University School of Law. “On the other hand, there’s concern that some of these tweets may have actually harmful real-world implications. When is it newsworthy enough to keep up, versus when is it harmful enough to take down?”

There’s no perfect answer here, but Twitter may have found the least bad approach to a nearly impossible situation.

“This is the most effective way of Twitter balancing the public interest of constituents knowing what their president says and believes, versus reducing the harm where that speech is potentially dangerous,” says Evelyn Douek, an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Douek cautioned against expecting a platform like Twitter to completely solve the problems of political discourse. “There’s a real democratic tension in a private company that has no democratic accountability or legitimacy deciding what a duly elected public official can or cannot say.”

While Trump and some of his allies have accused Twitter of violating his right to free speech, Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email that Twitter’s treatment of Trump’s tweet was an exercise of the company’s own First Amendment rights. As a private company, of course, Twitter is free to make its own rules. The public interest exception, Eidelman added, is “also good policy: labeling posts of public officials, especially the President, rather than deleting them, better informs the public and preserves open debate.”

Still, Twitter’s newly enforced policy leaves some tough questions unanswered. The most obvious is whether the company can enforce it consistently. Its action on Trump’s “shooting” tweet certainly fits within the four corners of company policy, but the timing is suggestive. The policy has been on the books for nearly a year, but lay dormant until the day after Trump targeted Twitter with an executive order. (A Twitter spokesperson pointed me to the company’s policies, but didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking about the timing of the action.)

“Flagging it is a political move,” says Li. “Twitter is taking a stand not just about the issues, but also taking a stand on how much power they have in order to govern the speech on Twitter’s platform.”

That’s understandable, perhaps even admirable, but it also opens the company to charges of selective enforcement. It took Republicans no time at all to find recent examples of other public officials seeming to violate the glorification of violence rule. Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who will ultimately be in charge of implementing part of Trump’s social media executive order, asked on Twitter why the company’s policy apparently doesn’t cover recent tweets from Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in support of armed Jihad against Israel.

Twitter also hasn’t satisfied the crowd who would prefer to see Trump simply kicked off. The logic behind the public interest exception explains why Twitter prefers not to remove posts once they’ve already gone up, but not whether someone like Trump is entitled to use the platform in perpetuity. Don’t expect Twitter to open that can of worms any time soon.

That it has the power to do so, though—in fact, it already happened, for a few minutes—gets at the real problem, one no moderation policy can ever adequately solve: Because a small number of private companies control the most important channels of online communication, the decisions they make have quasi-governmental force, even though they aren’t bound by the First Amendment. Trump seems to understand this: It’s why he rages so desperately against Twitter’s actions, but does so on Twitter itself.


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There Are Rumors ‘Kingdom Hearts’ Is Getting a Disney+ Show

Greetings, and once again welcome to Replay, WIRED’s rundown of all of the week’s big videogame news. This week we have tidbits about Kingdom Hearts, Fortnite delays, and Half-Life: Alyx. Let’s hop right in.There Are Rumors Kingdom Hearts Is Getting a Disney+ Show, Which Is WildWe all knew Disney was pulling out all the stops…

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There Are Rumors ‘Kingdom Hearts’ Is Getting a Disney+ Show

Greetings, and once again welcome to Replay, WIRED’s rundown of all of the week’s big videogame news. This week we have tidbits about Kingdom Hearts, Fortnite delays, and Half-Life: Alyx. Let’s hop right in.

There Are Rumors Kingdom Hearts Is Getting a Disney+ Show, Which Is Wild

We all knew Disney was pulling out all the stops to get good content for Disney+, the company’s streaming service. But this is … not where anyone expected them to go. According to a report on IGN, several sources are independently claiming there’s a Kingdom Hearts TV show in development for the platform. Yes, the madcap action-RPG franchise that began as an odd love child of Final Fantasy and Disney movie nostalgia might soon be a TV show.

According to the rumors, a pilot is being developed in the Unreal Engine—which the most recent game was also made in—by Square Enix, meaning that the same folk who are responsible for the twisty, existentialist, vaguely emo plotlines of the original series are likely still in charge of whatever this iteration will end up being. Will this be a whole new adaptation, or some deep-lore iteration that takes place in between two of the games and makes absolutely zero sense to anyone who hasn’t played Kingdom Hearts? If fans are really lucky, it’ll somehow be both.

Fortnite‘s Next Season Is Delayed. Again

Eventually, Fortnite content will continue. The third season of the game’s Chapter 2 has been delayed for the second time, though this time is, fortunately, far shorter than the last. As reported by PC Gamer, the update, which was originally delayed from April to June, is now being pushed back June 4 to June 11. Fortnite updates tend to be pretty big, often coming with reality-shaking events that substantially change the architecture and metagame of the island. Like, for example, the the end of the first season, which entirely rebooted the game by briefly destroying reality and bringing the whole game offline. This new chapter will likely not be nearly as earth-shattering. But maybe it’ll bring a cool new concert venue!

Half-Life: Alyx Put Liquid in Its Bottles, Which Is Way Cooler Than It Sounds

The latest update to Valve’s showcase virtual reality title, Half-Life: Alyx, puts liquid inside the various in-game bottles. No, seriously, that’s notable! As reported by Rock Paper Shotgun, that sort of detail mean everything in a game built in part as a wonderful opportunity to poke around and look at stuff in a VR environment. Being able to experience realistic liquid physics in a game, from up close, is a really fascinating and unique experience. The new update also improves the game’s mod support and some other stuff, but, like, whatever: When you throw a bottle, stuff will spill out of it. That’s dope.

Recommendation of the Week: Dishonored: Death of the Outsider on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, by Arkane Studios

Death of the Outsider is, for my money, the best game in the Dishonored franchise, a series focusing on stealth and supernatural power in a lushly detailed urban fantasy world, all steampunk and whaling and the constant hint of something deep and powerful beneath the foundation of reality. It’s also a really great series for stabbing oligarchs and offering worse-than-death punishments to real evil people. Out of the three games, this one has the best protagonist, a really cool ability set, and some of the best level design. A shorter, more spry introduction to the series, this is the one I’d recommend you check out on Arkane’s 20th anniversary as a studio this week. Even if it has some narrative baggage from the other games.


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What’s Next for SpaceX’s Crewed Mission to the ISS?

On Wednesday, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were supposed to launch to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. It would have been the first crewed launch from the US in nearly 9 years and the first time that a company launched NASA astronauts on its own rocket. The event was…

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What’s Next for SpaceX’s Crewed Mission to the ISS?

On Wednesday, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were supposed to launch to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. It would have been the first crewed launch from the US in nearly 9 years and the first time that a company launched NASA astronauts on its own rocket. The event was accompanied by the pomp one might expect from such a historic occasion: Kelly Clarkson sang the national anthem remotely from her Montana ranch via NASA’s livestream, Elon Musk held court in the mission firing room, and President Donald Trump flew in from Washington, DC, to deliver a congratulatory speech. But just 17 minutes before liftoff, the mission was scrubbed due to concerns of lightning activity near the launchpad.

Rocket about to lift off

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Last-minute cancellations are normal in the rocket business, and—with two lives on the line—SpaceX and NASA are being extra cautious for the Demo-2 mission. Although everything functioned perfectly on the rocket and inside the crew capsule, weather conditions along the flightpath fell outside of NASA’s exacting requirements for launch. (The main concern was the possibility of lightning striking the rocket, but the height of the cumulus clouds around the launch site also posed problems.) So on Saturday afternoon, Behnken and Hurley will head to the launchpad to try it all over again, Musk will return to the firing room, and even Trump will return to Florida to give a speech.

The SpaceX Demo-2 mission is the final test before NASA certifies the company’s Crew Dragon capsule for human spaceflight. If it goes well, it will clear the way for SpaceX to begin regularly sending astronauts to the International Space Station. But first the rocket needs to get off the pad—and there’s still a chance that the mission will get scrubbed yet again. During the shuttle era, some missions were delayed for weeks, but this was usually due to hardware problems. During Hurley’s first mission on the space shuttle in 2009, the mission was scrubbed five times before he actually launched due to a combination of problems with the fuel tanks and bad weather.

The team responsible for making the weather call on Saturday is the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which is headquartered just down the road from Kennedy Space Center at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This elite group of military meteorologists relies on a vast network of sensors—on land, at sea, in the upper atmosphere, and in space—to track weather conditions around the launchpad and on the rocket’s flight path down to the second.

On Saturday, during the last few hours before launch, the Weather Squadron will send about 10 high altitude balloons to the upper atmosphere to check wind conditions. If there’s a lot of cloud cover, they’ll also dispatch a Cessna jet to scope out the clouds from above. If there’s lightning, they’ll monitor around 900 ground stations spread across Cape Canaveral for electrical activity on the ground. Meanwhile, a network of buoys strung like pearls off the Atlantic coast will monitor wave heights to make sure that rescue teams can safely pull the astronauts from water in case of a launch abort. “There are very few other units in Air Force weather that have as much instrumentation as we have out here,” said Air Force Major Emily Graves, who will serve as the squadron’s launch weather operator for Demo-2.

As of Friday morning, there was only a 50 percent chance that the launch will happen, but these predictions can change considerably over the course of just a few hours. “There’s a lot going on, similar to what we were looking at on Wednesday,” Graves told WIRED when asked about Saturday’s forecast. “The launch time has shifted back a bit, so that should help us because typically thunderstorms are in the late afternoon and early evening.” But if Graves and her colleagues find that the weather conditions on Saturday fall outside of NASA’s strict launch requirements, they’ll send their “no go” decision to SpaceX mission control and no one will head to space that day.

For missions that send satellites to orbit, a rocket can launch within a predetermined window that might be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours long. The launch window is mostly determined by the spacecraft’s destination and operating requirements. But having a wide window helps when there’s spotty weather on the ground; if things aren’t looking good at the top of the window, they might be better later on. For instance, Graves says, about 15 minutes after SpaceX scrubbed Wednesday’s flight, weather conditions ended up improving enough for a launch. “We really thought that we were going to have a clearing and just enough time to get it off,” she said. “It was so close.”

So why didn’t they wait? Unlike an uncrewed satellite, any missions to the International Space Station must hit an instantaneous launch window. When a spacecraft is targeting a very specific orbit, such as the one occupied by the space station, it must hit precise launch parameters to make sure it has enough fuel to get to the right place at the right time. A satellite, by contrast, typically just needs to reach its correct orbit, rather than complete a perfectly-timed rendezvous.

That means if the Demo-2 mission can’t launch exactly on time, they won’t launch at all that day.

And even though the space station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, they can’t just wait an hour and a half and try again. For that, you can blame physics. The ISS makes about 16 Earth orbits each day, and with each orbit, it shifts slightly to the west relative to some point on the ground. This means the ISS passes over the same point on the ground roughly every three days. These consecutive passes are too far apart to launch again the same day, but some passes on the following day are close enough to still accomplish the mission. This is why SpaceX can make a third Demo-2 launch attempt on Sunday if it gets scrubbed Saturday.

Launch scrubs are a pain in the ass, but necessary ones. When WIRED asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a press conference on Friday about the preparations the agency makes to account for scrubs, he said they take a number of factors into consideration. The Cape Canaveral area is used by the military, NASA, and several rocket companies, which requires close coordination and blocking out reserved times for the launch. But the agency also has to consider more mundane matters like making sure the astronauts have gotten enough rest. “We have to consider the sleep cycles of the crew and make sure that they’re not in the midst of a very critical portion of the flight when they’ve been without sleep for 24 hours,” Bridenstine said.

If the rocket has been loaded with propellant by the time the scrub is called, it results in wasted fuel. This can make a scrub a very expensive event, but Bridenstine declined to offer a ballpark figure for how much it costs the agency each time the Demo-2 mission falls back. For a point of comparison, each of the five scrubs during Hurley’s first shuttle mission cost more than $1 million. But Bridenstine said NASA is focused on safety, not dollars.

“We don’t consider costs,” Bridenstine said. “There is no cost compared to the lives of Bob and Doug—we will do whatever it takes to make sure that they are safe.”


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