The story of the global COVID-19 pandemic is being told with numbers.
It’s a grim — albeit necessary — form of arithmetic that has become all too common during the worst health crisis in modern memory. Each day, in most countries around the world, citizens anxiously await the latest rollout of numbers — the number of new coronavirus cases, the total case count, the number of deaths, and test-positivity rates.
In recent weeks, new numbers have been added — the number of vaccine doses available, and the number of arms into which those doses have been injected. Another figure of particular interest to Canadians is the alarming fact the U.S. is now vaccinating more people per day (1.7 million) than Canada has in total (1.4 million).
These numbers are an essential tool to reveal the scope of the pandemic and whether public-health protocols are proving effective in tamping down the spread of the original virus and its potentially deadlier variants. But one of the most serious threats of this pandemic is that the basic humanity of its victims can become lost amid a rolling sea of mind-numbing numbers.
When the numbers start to get really big, as happened this week in the United States, they become almost impossible to comprehend, and the tendency is to compartmentalize them as just numbers rather than a record of actual human lives lost and families irreparably harmed.
Numbers can also provide historical perspective. Consider the situation of our southern neighbour, which leads the world in both coronavirus cases and deaths:
On Jan. 21, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. reached — and then exceeded — 405,399, the number of Americans who lost their lives in the Second World War.
On Feb. 22, the U.S. passed a once-unthinkable milestone: more than a half-million Americans dead from a virus the Trump administration had all but dismissed out of hand.
The way to deal with staggering numbers is by rolling out even more numbers to put them in perspective. At a White House ceremony last Monday, President Joe Biden, now his nation’s mourner in chief, pulled from his pocket a notecard that is updated each day with the changing death toll.
"Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead. ... That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth." – U.S. President Joe Biden
"Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead. ... That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth," the president noted.
Mr. Biden warned of the danger of forgetting the uniqueness of each victim. "We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing," he said. "There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary."
That message should go without saying, but, tragically, it does not. Public health officials in Manitoba and around the world constantly remind us that behind each number is a human face, a devastating loss that ripples through a family and a community. "We have to maintain our focus that these are not just numbers — these are people," Manitoba’s chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said in November.
In Manitoba, with 888 deaths as of Friday morning, some people are getting the message. Volunteers with Communities Not Cuts have been planting hundreds of homemade hearts along the Assiniboine River trail to remember each Manitoban lost to the virus.
If there is an upside to grim milestones, it’s that they offer a time to pause and reflect. We should all be mindful that when the human element is forgotten, numbers become meaningless.