How old are you?
How much do you weigh?
How tall are you?
Almost from birth, we’re obsessed with numbers and counting. Babies quickly learn how to count fingers and toes. As we get older, we keep counting.
What’s your SAT score?
How much money do you make?
How’s your 401(k) doing?
So it is with the coronavirus pandemic.
How many masks do we have? How many ventilators? How many people are in the ICU? And – how many people died today?
This past week, the virus claimed its 100,000th American life.
In reporting the daily death toll that’s now around 1,200, reporters have tried to compare it with something we can relate to. We’re told it equals the lives lost if five airliners crashed every day. As total deaths mounted, we learned the number exceeded Americans who died on 9/11. Then it surpassed the 7,000 soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Next we buried more Americans than the 36,517 total deaths in the Korean War and quickly passed the 58,209 American deaths in the Vietnam War.
Last Sunday, the New York Times published the names of a 1,000 of those victims on the front page. That full newspaper page only recorded 1 percent of those who died.
Almost 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks. In the days that followed, we learned about the victims’ lives, their families, how they died and how some of them died trying to save others. Americans’ outrage led to two wars, one of which continues 19 years later. We vowed to avenge their deaths and hold those who planned and sheltered the terrorists to account.
Standing on a pile of rubble at Ground Zero, President Bush shouted through a bull horn “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
As the Covid-19 death toll climbs, where’s the outrage, the sense of purpose, the national unity that followed 9/11? Why haven’t we focused on the individuals who died and where’s the concern to keep the rest of us safe?
Recently, Donald Trump started to question the death toll – that the numbers are inflated to make him look bad while in reality, public health experts say the toll is higher, not lower. A Florida public health official, not a politician, lost her job because she refused to manipulate death data for political purposes. Nebraska’s Republican governor blocked infection and death details from the state’s packing plants.
It’s all about the numbers, as if hiding the actual death count means those people really didn’t die.
A study by Columbia University showed 36,000 fewer people would have died if U.S. officials would have acted just one week earlier to impose social distancing measures. Move it back a week earlier, to March 1, and 54,000 fewer Americans would have died. Trump responded, not with sympathy for the victims or reflection on policy. He attacked Columbia as a “liberal, disgraceful institution.”
Numbers are crucial to how Trump sees the world – how high is the stock market, what’s the trade deficit with China, what was the rating for his latest television appearance?
Health experts constantly repeat wearing a face covering, washing your hands and staying 6 feet away from others are the easiest ways we can all save lives. Yet mask opponents see those measures as a symbol of one’s political or social standing. When deciding whether to follow proven public health practices, think about the individuals you may be saving….your aging parents, your friend with a compromised immune system or a child with asthma. Commit an unselfish, but inconvenient act.
A report investigating the government failures before 9/11 found the fundamental flaw was a failure of imagination. Officials failed to connect the dots to conclude that terrorists would actually hijack airliners and fly them into big buildings.
In this tragedy too, we have a failure of imagination. We have failed to imagine the faces, families and life stories behind the deaths of 100,000 of our fellow citizens. We just keep counting the numbers.