Told  /  Q&A

When 194,000 Deaths Doesn’t Sound Like So Many

From plague times to the coronavirus, the history of our flawed ability to process mass casualty events.

... got added. Additional information came online; the resource wasn’t stable. What the resource was doing at the beginning and what it’s doing now are very different things. And I don’t know that we have the numeracy or media literacy to understand those shifts as a country, and that worries me.

... got added. Additional information came online; the resource wasn’t stable. What the resource was doing at the beginning and what it’s doing now are very different things. And I don’t know that we have the numeracy or media literacy to understand those shifts as a country, and that worries me.

A lot of COVID denier-speak around death numbers is cloaked in what feels like false numeracy. People will knowingly say, Well, it’s not as bad as the number of people killed from car crashes.

Yes, I’ve seen dashboards that do a comparison with the 1918-19 flu—but using the full 24-month death count numbers for the flu! So, of course the COVID deaths look small. Those numbers are incommensurate.

This is a rapidly evolving situation and the information is going to be changing. We need to understand how it’s changing so that we can assess it. There’s not a gotcha moment here; these people are dead. They’re dead dead, not coming back.

In a thread you wrote in July about people’s reactions to death, you had a tweet I liked, about feelings: “Numbers are affective … They make people feel things, and for some people, that’s resistance, while for others, it’s despair. When those feelings are intense, people’s need to function can kick in, resulting in desensitization.”

That really resonated with me, because I feel like a lot of people who are very upset about COVID deaths will say, “How can you look at projections that predict 220,000 dead before the election, and not be completely outraged?” But you’re pointing out that people have different emotional responses to death counts.

As the numbers have gotten bigger, I’ve seen this happen—people’s threshold for dealing with trauma runs up against a kind of natural defense, to be able to keep functioning. Sometimes when people look at big death counts, like for the 1918-19 flu, 50 million confirmed deaths globally—that’s a really hard number to wrap your head around.

One of the things I argue in my book is that mortality counts take something so awful like seeing your hometown streets littered with dead bodies, and they wrap it up in a number that feels a little more reassuring and carefully contained. At some point between “100,000” and “50 million,” I think people lose the ability to discriminate between the really big numbers, but they also start to shut down emotionally.

I’m interested in the metaphor of the “COVID dashboard,” in that sense. It seems to promise a sense of control: “You’re in the driver’s seat.”

Yes, for sure. This is part of what my creative work is about—finding ways to get people to have a different sense of mortality numbers, such that they can feel the impact of it. However awful it is. The artistic representations of death counts that take the numbers out of two dimensions, and render them embodied in some way, are the ones that seem to break through. In an academic context we would call the idea behind this “embodied cognition”—things you come to know in a different way, just from your body moving through space. That is what we mean when we talk about “muscle memory.”

Think about the Vietnam Memorial—the scale and scope of that, the way if you stand in front of it to see an individual’s name, you can’t see the whole thing. Or the military graveyards where you just see row upon row of white crosses. The shoes activists put on the White House lawn to ...