Sometime this week the United States is likely to pass a milestone that would have seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago.
As of Monday, the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard showed more than 54,800 American deaths from the virus that causes COVID-19. While the evidence suggests the number of new cases in the United States may have plateaued, we have not yet seen the kind of clear downturn in cases other countries have reached.
Deaths are a trailing indicator for the pandemic. This virus requires time to kill, so deaths continue to rise even after the peak number of new cases is reached. We’ve seen that in other countries. We will see it here. That means sometime this week the United States will likely surpass 58,000 deaths from the pandemic, equal to the generally accepted figure for deaths in the Vietnam war.
Numbers have some curious properties when applied to people. When we hear someone’s parent or grandparent has died we link that to our own experiences, our own love for relatives. Empathy is almost automatic. When we hear of a plane crash that kills 50 people, it’s still comparatively easy for us to envision that number and to connect with who we imagine they may have been.
But when the tolls rise to levels we rarely encounter in daily life it becomes harder. Despite the fact those figures inevitably include more people like those we know, it becomes more difficult to separate the name from the number.
The very scale of this pandemic poses a challenge for us. The challenge is not necessarily to counting those who have died or to recording the statistics. It’s in remembering that every one of those numbers represents a person.
Every new positive test is someone who faces uncertainty and fear, and must often do so without the support of family and friends as they try to limit the risk they now pose to others.
Every new hospitalization is someone who requires the care of others who are choosing to put themselves at risk.
Every new death is someone’s child. Someone’s brother or sister. A parent, perhaps, or grandparent. Someone who had friends, who had plans that will go unfulfilled.
Will any of us be able to truly absorb that? It’s doubtful, frankly. The human mind isn’t particularly good at envisioning numbers that big. But there is value in remembering that these are people we are talking about, not ciphers, not cogs in a machine.
There’s a long way to go before any of this is over. Despite officials’ confident predictions two weeks ago, Iowa has not turned the corner. And, yet, we have still been fortunate so far. The overwhelming wave of illnesses many feared, the wave that overtook communities in New York, Louisiana and other places, has not hit us. That’s largely because of steps people have taken to limit their risks and the risk to others.
More milestones lay ahead. Some will be painful. But as we pass them, it will be more important than ever to remember that we’re not dealing with numbers. We’re talking about people.