That was the news this week in the US: Five hundred thousand people gone in a year due to COVID-19.
Half-a-million. That’s a big number. How do we make sense of it? The press drew comparisons.
Half-a-million dead is:
- More Americans than died in WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War combined
- Enough Americans to fill Arlington National Cemetery
- Almost enough Americans to wipe Atlanta, Georgia off the map
- All the school bus drivers in the US
A lot of people.
For anyone unfamiliar with these reference points, there’s the bus scenario. It would take a caravan of 9,804 busses, each carrying 51 passengers, to transport all of the people in the US who have died from COVID over the past year. That caravan would stretch across 94.7 miles, or 156.8 kilometers, of road.
A lot of people died.
We focus on numbers and how big they are.
Somehow numbers are supposed to make it easier for us to understand the impact of this tragedy by making it quantifiable. But do they, really? Or do they simply replace emotional overwhelm with emotional distance?
Talking about the numbers in terms of war dead or bus passengers gives us a picture of its collective enormity, but the individuals affected fade away. Picturing the dead as a mass may feel somehow safer, but does it also keep us from feeling the true impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on us, our neighbors, and our society?
A seat on a hypothetical bus cannot adequately represent the emptiness left behind by the loss of a loving uncle and his counsel. Or the disappointment caused by a congratulatory wedding hug delayed. Or the long term impact that a disrupted school year and classmates who never return has on a child. And then, for those of us who have diabetes, there is the long-term impact on our health from the stress caused by being singled out as being at greater risk for the worst outcomes from COVID-19 — all while having our regularly scheduled health checks disrupted.
Living with diabetes, we use numbers all the time as a proxy for how we experience life. Blood glucose levels and A1C results are the measure of how well we’re doing in the short term. The number of people who develop blindness, have amputations, and/or shortened lifespans are the measures of how we fare in the end.
Does the first glucose reading of the day truly reflect a bad night’s sleep? Or a good one? Does the A1C capture a life well-led? How about a life led recklessly?
When we calculate these equivalencies all nuance and detail disappears. We paint a picture in our head meant to help us understand better. To feel calmer. More in control. But the numbers supplant our direct, emotional connection with our overall life and how we experience it.
Perhaps we distance ourselves emotionally so that we don’t feel so vulnerable to the illness. An illness that might kill us. One that might leave us disabled. Certainly one that leaves us forever changed.