It Adds Up
“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Joseph Stalin
My dad was an actuary. He loved numbers and did multiplication tables in his head to comfort himself. Me, not so much. Because I had trouble remembering my “times tables,” Dad tried making a game out of memorization, but even that didn’t completely fix the problem. If they could’ve been delivered in song or story form, I would’ve learned ‘em in a snap.
I need stories to comprehend the magnitude of how many have (or have had) coronavirus. I simply don’t “get” 3.8 million in the US or 14.5 million worldwide. The largest stadium I’ve been in, the Tacoma Dome, seats 23,000. That’s the upper limit of my visual representation. I was seeking comparators to the numbers we’re hearing, so I looked for states with a population of less than 4 million. Turns out that’s all 50 of them. If I try to imagine everyone ill (with apologies) in our largest state, California, I get a vague sense. To really grasp the significance, I have to visualize cities I’ve visited or lived in.
Here’s a bizarre twist: as the numbers get larger, the visual representation appears smaller. At 500,000 COVID cases and counting, I was horrified. But we recognize 3 is less than 500,000, so looking at 3.8 million doesn’t rock me the same way.
Martin Harrison wrote in the Guardian (2015), “Blindness to scale, [is] a bigger issue than just not being able to process. It implies that bigger numbers are inherently dehumanizing. We become detached from the people, or birds, or wild habitats behind them.” We’re overwhelmed with data and statistics our minds can’t grasp. Examples: 3 trillion dollars in a stimulus package, 7.8 billion humans on the planet, 7 million hectares of lost rain forest annually. No wonder we go numb with incomprehension and become indifferent.
Clearly Stalin was no humanitarian or philosopher, but the quote attributed to him seems to be an accurate statement. As our brains detach from the magnitude of the pandemic and numbers become statistics, an antidote is to personalize some of the close to 140,000 in the US who are known to have died of COVID-19. The PBS News Hour does this every Friday evening with a montage of photos and the distillation of the lives of 5-6 individuals who perished over the week. It’s hard to see those gone and grieved by their families and friends, yet paying tribute for a few minutes from my living room is the least I can do.
You may not be aware that pilots and traffic controllers refer to “souls on board,” not passengers, during an air emergency. It’s an efficient and effective way to remind everyone of the stakes regarding human life. Because it’s too easy to become inured to COVID digits and disconnect, we have to work at staying aware of what the figures mean to light a fire of urgency (and participation) in ending this crisis. Personally, I’ll be viewing those numbers as souls.
How do you maintain your awareness of magnitude? Please comment in the box below (I’m sorry you have to sign in but there seems to be no way around it—and I do appreciate your comments!).
Sending you physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder that masks are now haute couture so dress up!