Every number tells a story

Where is the pity, why is there not more outrage? Or at the very least, a website mapping and recording the thousands of victims
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed

Why do so many children drown in the country every year?

A willingness to cast doubt upon the source and truth of facts which say something you dislike, or dispute, is not unique to Donald Trump.

When people like an idea enough, they may neither need evidence, nor be persuadable by facts alone. Conspiracy theories and demagoguery existed long before modern communications multiplied the speed with which they could spread.

On the other hand, a sceptical approach to investigations is often necessary or helpful for scientists and others to improve the credibility and verifiability of the facts upon which society relies.

Hence, while everyone will dismiss the likes of the Flat Earth Society as cranks, most people will readily use the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” which Mark Twain immortalized but did not invent, over a century ago.

With this in mind, I have occasionally pondered upon figures for the number of children drowned each year in Bangladesh. The numbers are deeply shocking and do not seem to improve much from one decade to the next.

This year’s report by the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research (CIPRB) in research conducted with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) and Johns Hopkins University found almost 12,000 children under the age of 14 drowning to death each year in the country. Around 32 every day.

If you recall reading a similar scale of loss and sorrow 10 years ago in a similar report, the findings might not be a shock. But they should be.

To put the headline figure of 12,000 children into context, consider that Bangladesh has around 3,850 murders each year. Or that estimates for annual deaths from road traffic accidents in Bangladesh last year ranged from 4,200 recorded by police to 7,855 people killed in 5,516 road crashes counted by the Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association.

By the way, Bangladesh’s murder rate is not atypically high. Random killings by strangers are much less commonplace than cases where victims know their murderers. At 2.4 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which is the same ballpark as Hungary and Estonia, the rate is twice that prevalent in the UK, France, and Bhutan but a third less than that in Thailand. It is also less than half the murder rate of the US and Russia and a much smaller fraction of the rates prevailing in Brazil and South Africa.

To the surprise of nobody, deaths from road traffic accidents in Bangladesh are of course disgracefully high. While the per 100,000 people rate for RTAs is not dissimilar to that in the US, what this translates to in reality is Bangladesh managing to have more road accident deaths each year than Japan and the UK put together with far fewer vehicles on the road.  (Those planning post pandemic travels may wish to note the same tables also record China, Thailand, and India as all having even worse road death rates.)

Not every homicide gets a headline, and dangerous driving practises are endemic across much of Asia, but it goes without saying that some murders and road accidents generate much more media and public discussion than hundreds of children drowning every week.

Where is the pity, why is there not more outrage? Or at the very least, a website mapping and recording the thousands of victims.

To make this issue more perplexing, there is no obvious or simple target to blame for these deaths, unlike say extra-judicial crossfire, border deaths, and ferry accidents.

Remember while these numbers can be adversely influenced by floods, the stories they tell do not usually involve disasters. According to the Bangladesh Health and Injury Survey published in 2003, over three quarters of children drowning did so in ponds or waterbodies less than 20 metres from their home. Typically, they are under the age of five and unlikely to wander far on their own. It only takes a small lapse of concentration by a child or carer for an ordinary day to turn into a family tragedy.

And every study since says the same still happens dozens of times across the land every day.

When one thinks of Bangladesh’s success in reducing infant and child mortality rates with the help of local health workers and vaccinations, it does seem an anomaly that such a high cause of death — thought to be at a higher rate than pneumonia and malnutrition for children under the age of four — should be so widespread, when it is more easily preventable.

Add in the ubiquity of phones and social media with the paucity of media attention paid to children drowning compared with other types of death and it is natural for the question “if 30 children drown every day why do we not hear more about it?” to pop up and for questioning of the figure itself to follow.

Could anecdotes and figures have somehow become conflated to increase the total? This is possible but unlikely. The organizations involved have distinguished reputations to protect, and no incentive not to be scrupulous in compiling figures.

Of course, given the lack of a complete and reliable public record with few such cases ever being reported to authorities, it remains likely that the actual total of such cases is different.

But a difference in totals would not change the actual story behind the figures here.

Children are still drowning each year in huge numbers and while each single death is tragic, the national tragedy is that most of this loss of life is largely preventable.

The macro level as recorded in WHO statistics makes this clearer; while more than nine times out of ten people die from a disease, illness or old age, for injury-related deaths around the world, drowning is the third most common cause.

Over 90% of such deaths occur in low and middle-income countries with less developed infrastructure and more poverty; in wealthier nations it is much more likely for drowning deaths to be accounted for by adults undertaking leisure activities than by small children drowning in a pond or water tank.

However much one wishes the big picture was less sad and the totals could be reduced quicker through more public awareness and swimming lessons, it is hard to get away from the core truth that such tragedies are an everyday reality.

And that this in turn reflects the narrow margins and commonplace stresses under which so many live.

Margins so tight that that there is little room or inclination to think about much beyond the immediate and day to day, however common it is for tragedy to strike in but a moment.