Zugzwang

Fewer Dead Souls?

By Zugzwang In a previous essay,  I speculated that somewhere in the bowels of Public Health England (PHE) there was someone who had worked out, like Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a method of making use of dead souls. At the time, I wondered if these dead, reported daily on the Government's Covid dashboard, were being created literally out of nothing, as there was no trace of them in the detailed death tabulations produced by the ONS. As it turns out, that part of my speculation was incorrect.  The Chichikov in question was a Professor Newton (John, not Isaac) who had decided at an early stage of the epidemic to define death-by-Covid in such a way that he could borrow genuine deaths that were properly registered as being from other causes and claim them, for the indefinite future, provided the deceased had tested positive at some point for COVID-19. He feared, it seems, that without this resource, PHE might have been "underestimating deaths caused by the virus in the early stages". This is a very strange explanation, as one thing that was absolutely not achieved was to avoid underestimation in the early stages. You may recall a chart (originated by Carl Heneghan and reproduced in my earlier essay) that showed clearly that PHE had underestimated Covid-related deaths during the peak of  the...

Dead Souls

by Zugzwang Marc Chagall's illustration for Dead Souls The anti-hero of Gogol's Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, had his reasons for cultivating the nobility of a provincial Russian backwater, and buying from them, for a nominal sum, those of their serfs who happened to be dead. This saved the vendors an amount of poll tax (which continued to be payable for some time after death) and transformed Chichikov himself into a gentleman proprietor of some 400 serfs, potentially capable of raising a large loan on these assets and eloping (presumably under another name) with the Governor's daughter. When I first read Gogol, I found the whole idea totally obscure and mystifying, and I'm not sure that he ever spells out in words of one syllable how Chichikov's business model is supposed to work. There's a highly respectable view that the whole thing was always intended as pure shaggy-dog, and it's only fitting that it breaks off in mid-sentence, as an act of Shandyean surrealism. Compared with the COVID-19 mortality statistics, however, Gogol provides us with a paradigm of lucidity. Chichikov had found a way of monetising actual serfs who merely happened to have died. We have a Government agency, Public Health England, which seems to be busy manufacturing statistical deaths, to no purpose that makes even Chichikovian sense. The problem...

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July 2022
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