When counting human bodies, it’s reasonable to think that 318,000 is a big number. That’s the approximate total number of deaths in the U.S. from Covid-19 as of December 21, 2020. But I am a glutton for context and I want more than a round number to help me understand what this means — especially when we are bombarded by Covid-19 statistics several times a day.
So I went in search of other ways to put this death toll in perspective. And I discovered that any death toll, by itself, is not necessarily an accurate gauge of how a horrible event is remembered or even how it makes people feel.
To be blunt, I’m not sure that a catastrophe resulting in a high volume of deaths is the best gauge of an event’s overall impact or its place on the spectrum of bad-things-that-happen-to-us.
The Shock and Awe Factor
Consider, for example, that the immediate death toll resulting from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 was roughly 2,700. That is less than one one-hundredth the domestic death toll from Covid-19 over nine-plus months.
Yet somehow 9/11 feels viscerally more horrific to me. Could this be because the terrorist attack was a highly dramatic act of public violence involving airplanes operating like missiles, huge fireballs, and highly telegenic destruction? While the sneaky virus is invisible, and all you see are the consequences of its invasion — but not the invasion itself?
Perhaps spectacle beats stealth, in which case, the numbers alone do not drive the historic narrative.
Taking this idea a step further: in New York City alone, over 24,000 people have died from Covid-19 so far — many times more, obviously, than died on 9/11. Yet I do not think the general population much beyond the New York metro area could tell you that Covid-19 has taken a far higher toll in NYC than 9/11. I can’t state this as a fact, but it would not surprise me if 9/11 still looms in the public’s imagination as the bigger crisis not just politically, but in terms of how many died. At the very least, I think many people would be surprised by the disparity in death tolls between these events.
When Horror Unfolds Rapidly
An event’s timeline is another factor shaping our perceptions about impact. When a cataclysm occurs in a compact timeframe, the impact of the loss feels absolutely huge, even if the absolute losses are far lower than other historical events. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD killed roughly 2,000 people immediately in Pompeii and Herculaneum. We still talk about it today. Like 9/11, this cataclysm unfolded almost faster than people could process it. So in addition to spectacle, both events delivered a high shock value. Does a short, sharp shock to the system trump numeric reality on the scale of awfulness? Perhaps.
When a Lot Happens in a Small Space
Proportionate impact matters as well. The Mt. Vesuvius eruption killed over 10 percent of the populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the short-term. If the U.S. were to sustain a comparable proportionate loss today, 32 million people would die within 24 hours. In New York on 9/11, the implosion of the Twin Towers not only destroyed a high-profile icon, but unleashed debris and destruction beyond the towers’ immediate footprint.
Call it the obliteration factor: a significant and vital portion of each metropolis was destroyed in a matter of hours. Here again, the numbers (deaths) do not exclusively drive the narrative.
The Virus vs. the Soldier
The Covid-19 death toll feels entirely different in the context of war casualties. For instance, 100,000 fewer people died in the first world war plus the Korean and Vietnam conflicts combined than during the current pandemic. In this context, the Covid-19 losses feel especially horrendous. To think that this virus has killed more people in nine months than three significant wars that unfolded over cumulative decades is jaw-dropping.
Context shifts again — ratchets up further — when Covid-19 deaths are held up against Civil War deaths specifically. On the one hand, more than twice as many people died during the four-year Civil War conflict than during the pandemic so far.
But the daily pace of losses tells a different story. During the Civil War, about 500 people died each day. During Covid-19, about 660 people die daily. So all of those fierce and bloody battlefield conflicts, all the dysentery, infections, influenza, and other diseases that killed soldiers and others in the 1860s occurred at a more protracted rate than the current virus. In this light, the swift spread of Covid-19 — as a carrier of death — is breathtaking.
Covid-19 vs. The Black Death
Then again, Covid-19 looks like a blip compared to the Black Death (the bubonic plague) of the Late Middle Ages. In a few short years, the worst plague in recorded history killed more than 75 million people and wiped out more than half of Europe’s population alone.
In this context, the entire world is getting off comparatively easy with Covid-19, which has killed under 2 million worldwide in just under a year thus far — if you let the numbers alone tell the story.
One Year for Every Death: Mind-blowing
I sought one more contextual frame to make sense of the U.S. Covid-19 deaths to date. I decided to look at the death toll in the context of deep historic time. And this gets very interesting. Each Covid-19 death in the U.S., if calculated at the rate of one death per year, would take us all the way back to the Middle Paleolithic era.
At that time, Homo sapiens did not rule the Earth. In fact, nine human species were around 300,000 years ago, including the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. Emerging humans were still 50,000 years away from cooking their food. Much of their time was spent coping with predators such as hyenas, wolves, and bears.
What does this prove? Absolutely nothing. But for me, at least, it enriches my perspective on the sheer volume of 318,000 deaths. It helps me understand how many that many seems to be.
Behind every single Covid-19 death, of course, is a human life that ended unexpectedly, leaving unfinished business and grieving loved ones behind. I know this isn’t just about the numbers. But countless news outlets blast the rolling local, state, and national totals on a daily basis, overwhelming us with graphs, maps, and columns of numbers. I doubt I am the only one who craves context — some way to make sense of the numbers that take up so much head space.
History will record these numbers and future generations will ponder not only what they meant but how they made people feel. I hope the digits get the rich context they deserve.