Earlier this month, there was a lot of news about the U.S. crossing the threshold of one million officially recorded deaths due to COVID-19.
In truth, we hit that number a while ago. No one knows exactly when. Because of limited testing, imperfect reporting, spotty health-care coverage, and patchwork record keeping that relied on grassroots groups of volunteers like the COVID Tracking Project to fill in when our CDC vacated its duties, our numbers are, overall, vague estimates. We don't truly know how many people have died. We hit a million a while back.
The occasion of remembrance has some value in forcing reflection, though, even if it's imprecise. That's how it's justified by those issueing the press releases: We need to sit with this. Let it sink in. Even if the number is imprecise, the point is to reflect. That's important.
Except ... that also fails us. Trying to comprehend a million deaths is impossible. It's too vast to begin to comprehend, much less reckon with.
So, how do we do it? Or, come closer? I discussed this with some other journalists earlier this month, led by climate reporter Andrew Revkin, and wanted to share the video for those interested. In short, our brains operate by comparing new facts to our existing reference bank. People are more likely to relate emotionally to the story of one person's suffering—which is relatable—than to a statistic about a million or a trillion people, which is like trying to picture the Milky Way. You might say "wow" or "I can't even imagine," because you know intellectually that this is vast and hugely consequential. But we can't expect people to feel at that scale. News of 100,000 or 1 million or 10 million deaths will trigger the same response: overload. Can't process.
We need better ways to comprehend and relate to the enormity of what's unfolding. I worry that without that, we're just resigned to numbness. Reporting on numbers is necessary, but not sufficient. No matter how loudly you say them.
And this goes for all sorts of ongoing, chronic issues. Not just infectious disease metrics, but things like gun violence or climate change. The statistics are not resonating. We can't expect that they will just because the numbers continue to increase, from levels that are already unconscionable.
I'll be thinking more about this and appreciate ideas, as always. Here's what we came up with, for now ...