Statistics, people without the tears

The Cape Times and the Pretoria News first published this article on 11 July 2013 (under different headlines).  Read the article below, or open a PDF of the Cape Times article by clicking here or read it on the Pretoria News website here.

When Matej Gaspar was born in Zagreb he was chosen as the planet’s symbolic five billionth human. It’s not possible to know who the five billionth person really was but demographers calculated the birth would be around 11 July 1987 and, on that date, the U.N. Secretary General was in Zagreb. Metej became the symbolic media-friendly face of an otherwise merely numerical global population landmark. Public interest led the U.N. to decide that, from 1989, World Population Day would be marked on each successive 11 July. Today is therefore the twenty fifth anniversary of the first World Population Day.


Since Matej’s birth the global population has swollen from five billion to over seven billion. Many people writing about World Population Day will tell you those figures and then continue to present you with a statistical onslaught. They will highlight why this growth is of great concern or, alternatively, the contrary view that there’s nothing to worry about. Either way, statistics are likely to be at the heart of their arguments. That’s not what I want to write about. Earlier today I read a phrase in a book on the history of cancer, relating to the success rates of clinical trials of chemotherapeutic drugs. The phrase practically leapt off the page, “statistics are people, without the tears.”  

The phrase had such an impact as I had cancerous tumours successfully removed in December 2012, followed by adjuvant chemotherapy. Adjuvant chemotherapy is treatment given after surgery when detectable signs of cancer have been removed and only a statistical risk of relapse remains. My treatment reduced the chances of cancer returning from 12% to 2%, which sounds like good odds, particularly if you’re not the person who has been told they could fall into the 2% statistic. At the time of writing I’ve been waiting all day for a promised and chased for call from my oncologist, which never came. I’m waiting for the results of my six month check-up. Perhaps I’m just another statistic and he hasn’t realised what it feels like to wait not knowing, cancer patients are his daily work after all. 

Matej Gaspar was used to give the five billion number a name, a nationality and a place of birth. It was a publicity stunt as, presumably, the U.N. recognised a number alone wouldn’t engage the public’s interest to the same extent. It’s an approach that needs to be developed. If it’s not, population will continue to gain widespread coverage only in years when another billion people are added to the human avalanche, as with 2011’s “Year of Seven Billion” or on today’s fairly arbitrary anniversary.  

The U.N.’s chosen theme for this year’s World Population Day is adolescent pregnancy. They provide some more figures by pointing out that, worldwide, roughly “16 million girls under age 18 give birth each year. Another 3.2 million undergo unsafe abortions […] Often it is a consequence of discrimination, rights violations (including child marriage), inadequate education or sexual coercion”. There are a great many tears behind those statistics.

In the last few months, since I’ve been covering personal stories of population and consumption growth impacts, I’ve met many people whose real life stories fall within those U.N. numbers. The academically gifted teenager I met in the Transkei who fell pregnant, does not want to have her baby but is keeping it due to access and cultural reasons is but one of them. She’s unlikely to finish her education and with no living parents a troubling future awaits her. She’s more than a number.

Last week I interviewed women working at an Eastern Cape children’s drop in centre. They told me horrifying stories, the final one about a mentally handicapped woman who’d been raped as a child, by her own cousin. Her relatives told her she’d be thrown out if she reported the rape. It seems like everyone in the village knows but no one ever reported it. She still lives with the same relatives and is now the mother to her cousin’s child. I didn’t meet the victim, although the alleged rapist was pointed out to me. He was tending his garden. This victim is more than a number too.

World Population Day comes but once a year and acts as a brief reminder of population issues but anniversaries and figures are useful only so far and for certain purposes. As our number increases, whatever that number is, demands on natural resources rise and environmental issues become harder to solve with further impacts on landscapes and species. There are women like those I’ve mentioned who don’t have access to the sexual and reproductive rights, facilities, care or justice that they need. Statistics alone do not excite an adequate response to these issues. 

As we watch the graphs highlighting population increases and note the U.N.’s focus on adolescent mothers, unsafe abortions and other sexual and reproductive rights issues it might help to keep these topics in the news if we focus more on the personal stories. As anyone knows who is treated as a statistic, it’s the personal stories where you’ll find the tears.

NOTE: As a personal update, I am very pleased to say that I received my test results the day after I wrote the article. I fell on the happy side of the statistics and the tears were merely of relief and joy.