The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues its unrelenting march through the U.S. population.
The most recent numbers indicate that more than 218,000 people in the United States have died of complications of the virus. That’s more than the population of Birmingham, Boise, Des Moines or Green Bay.
It’s more than the number of battle deaths on both sides of the Civil War, four times the number who died in Vietnam, and a whopping six times the number who died in Korea1. And it has happened in seven months.
So Many in So Little Time
The number seems unimaginable, particularly considering the pandemic has only been with us since February. The first official U.S. fatality from the COVID-19 occurred near Seattle on February 29. However, later autopsies showed that a person died from the effects of COVID in Santa Clara, California on February 62.
That fatality rate equates to a COVID death nearly every 1.5 minutes for six months. Yet, there seems to be no overt panic among Americans in general.
In an article in The Atlantic3, senior associate editor Caroline Mimbs Nyce quoted Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan: “Part of the reason this majority-white, majority-non-elderly country has been so blasé about COVID-19 deaths is that mostly Black people and old people are dying.”
While gerontophobia and racism are very real issues in American life today, this explanation doesn’t answer the larger issue. A deeper look into human empathy reveals more complex reasons.
How Much Is Too Much?
In the three weeks since The Atlantic editorial appeared, an additional 18,000 Americans have died of COVID related causes. At what point does the number overstress our collective psyche? Or do the increasing numbers of deaths instead portend the opposite of empathy – a numbing disengagement?
Elke Weber, a Princeton University psychologist was quoted in National Geographic with this take. “The whole country is depressed. If you’re already stressed out, the 200,000 statistic becomes just another thing.”4
Are we actually wired biologically to minimize large numbers? This is particularly true when our lives are also impacted by unemployment and economic strife. Civil protest, natural disasters, political sparring add to the stress. For those still employed, there is a radical shift in how work is accomplished.
The numbers don’t take on a personal meaning unless the death of a friend or loved one as a result of COVID personally impacts us. Even though the number is high, the majority of people in America have not had a direct connection to a COVID death. The number becomes abstract.
There is also the sheer uncertainty of the pandemic. We have been living in a highly altered, and stressful, state for several months with no end in sight. Thus we focus on our own survival to get through another day. “I hear of COVID deaths but they didn’t affect me or my loved ones today. A virus-bullet successfully dodged one more time.”
The uncertain future also contributes to our distancing ourselves from the number. Will there be another surge of infections as winter comes? Will we see an effective vaccine soon? We may feel some empathy for others but it’s hard.
One factor of the impact on our empathy is the way we learn of COVID deaths. While some newspapers and social media may run a small column listing the daily or weekly infections and deaths in a city or state, it’s not ‘big news.’
In my own local newspaper, serving a population of close to one million, COVID information typically appears in a one-column notation on page 3.
America routinely loses more than 30,000 who die in traffic accidents each year. But it’s not ‘news’ except for a possible one-time mention locally.
We have fleeting, if any, empathy for those victims because their deaths are not front-and-center in our lives. We can say the same of COVID deaths.
Contrast that with the deaths of American soldiers in Vietnam. The casualties in that war numbered one-quarter of the number of COVID deaths and spread out over years, not months. But nightly television news ran a nightly ‘death tally’, a prominent graphic showing the number of Americans killed in that far away place.
The losses, even if not personally experienced by most Americans, became a shared experience.
So humans appear to be most sensitive to issues directly affecting them. But the COVID discussion is often not about personal impacts. We debate whether to wear masks as though to do so without concrete assurance of 100 percent protection is an assault on our liberty.
The discussion includes finger-pointing about who dropped the ball at what time in the past to create a shortage of medical supplies to combat the pandemic. Or we argue about which political candidate will best address the rising toll – as other politicians sue to undo whatever steps their rival has taken.
But we rarely talk about Stanley, who died – likely from the effects of COVID. Or of Jody or Julian, who survived the infection but suffered weeks of medical uncertainty.
Mardi Kessler, a psychiatrist at the University of California – San Francisco, says a healthy coping mechanism is to use those personal connections to motivate positive change. “Maybe you witness a mask debate and you tell people, I heard that Jane’s brother died. Do you see that 200,000 people also died? Maybe you could cover your nose.”5
Have you had a personal connection to the COVID pandemic?
Tell us about it in the comments below.
- “America’s Wars.” Fact Sheers – America’s Wars, Unites States Veteran’s Administration, Nov. 2019, www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf. Accessed October 15, 2020
- Offord, Catherine. “First US COVID-19 Deaths Happened Weeks Earlier than Thought.” The Scientist Magazine®, 22 Apr. 2020, www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/first-us-covid-19-deaths-happened-weeks-earlier-than-thought-67457. Accessed on September 28, 2020.
- Nyce, Caroline Mimbs. “The Atlantic Daily: Why the U.S. Stopped Caring About COVID-19 Deaths.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Sept. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2020/09/200-000-covid-19-deaths-us/616440/. Accessed September 23, 2020
- Quoted in Richards, Sarah Elizabeth. “Why Our Minds Can’t Make Sense of COVID-19’s Enormous Death Toll.” National Geographic, 29 Sept. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/why-minds-brains-cannot-make-sense-coronavirus-enormous-death-toll/. Accessed October 3, 2020.