Imagine that 15 passenger jets full of Covid-19 patients crashed today, all across the United States, and killed everyone on board. Because that’s what happened minus the airplanes. More than 3,034 deaths from coronavirus were reported across the US on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins’ tally, making this the highest single day reporting of daily new deaths since the pandemic began.
At this rate, the official death toll in the US will surpass 300,000 this weekend.
“We’re living through the worst-case scenario for this pandemic,” said Alexis Madrigal, the co-founder of the Covid Tracking Project. “And we probably still do not know how bad it actually has been over the past couple weeks.” He noted that cases continue to rise and “hospitalizations remain extremely high.”
Multiple news outlets noted that Wednesday’s coronavirus death toll surpassed the toll on 9/11. “The Rachel Maddow Show” led with this graphic, also factoring in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:
I feel it. You probably do, too. The numbness of these ever-increasing numbers. President-elect Joe Biden talked about this feeling on Tuesday. Every day is a slew of statistics, a barrage of broken records. “Our hearts and our minds block out the enormity of it,” grief expert David Kessler told me on last Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.”
That’s how humans are wired — to cope, to adjust, to adapt. So it helps to acknowledge the numbness and talk about it. Talk about the consequences. As Bryan Walsh wrote last month for Axios, “the psychic numbing that sets in around mass death saps us of our empathy for victims and discourages us from making the sacrifices needed to control the pandemic.” He said it also “hampers our ability to prepare for other rare but potentially catastrophic risks down the road.”
Kessler said that “grief must be witnessed,” but so many Covid-19 deaths are happening out of sight. And “even if you could see what we see,” in hospital wards, “I think it’s not psychologically possible for people to grasp the enormity of this,” Dr. Esther Choo said on the program. “And yet we need people to absorb enough of the tragedy that it actually drives their behavior so that we can get to the other end of the pandemic.”
This requires creative storytelling, careful access to hospitals, and compassionate news coverage.
“Will people remember where they were?”
CNN media analyst Bill Carter wrote on Twitter: “Death toll over 3k today. More than 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, both events so devastating they became life markers: ‘Where were you when…’ Will people remember where they were when they heard 3k died of Covid on 12/09/20? And what the hell happened that so many of us simply don’t care?”
Imagine what could have been…
Public health communication is pivotal in a pandemic. And yet the federal government has failed to communicate. Individual agency leaders and task force members have tried and tried, and they deserve credit, but the Trump WH has abjectly failed. Where were the “fireside chats” early on, the public service announcements, the rallying moments? Where were the creative uses of media to motivate the public to fight a common enemy? It feels too late now. But I keep thinking about all the awful missed opportunities.
On Wednesday, Politico’s Dan Diamond shared a video of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showing leadership and pleading with the public to take safety precautions. “Trump could hold a press conference like this every day, just reiterating public health advice,” Diamond tweeted. “It would reach millions of Americans, cost nothing but his time, and would be one of the simplest ways to fight Covid-19. That he doesn’t is as revealing as any decision this year.”
300,000 individual stories
The human cost of Covid-19 is covered one by one, story by story, obit by obit. Last week Rebecca Lopez, a veteran reporter for WFAA TV in Dallas, paid tribute to her mother Amalia Gonzales, who died on Thanksgiving.
“I just urge people, if there’s anything you hear from us today by telling our story — as difficult as it is — just protect yourself and protect others,” Lopez said in an interview on her home station.