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On Wednesday, a United States official reported the death of coronovirus to six digits. A year and a half ago, a disease unknown to science ended the lives of a million people.
Kovid-19: Live update
And as the unwanted figure comes up – almost a third of global deaths in the first five months of a very trying year – can that one and those five zeros see us? Are any numbers deployed in transient time to express scope and seriousness and to really consider?
“We all want to measure these experiences because they are so shocking, so heavy that we want to bring some sense of wisdom to the unknown,” says Jeffrey Jackson, a history professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee who talks about the politics of natural Teaches about. Disasters.
This is not a new thing. In the mid-1800s, a new level of numerical precision was emerging in Western society, at the same time as the United States fought a civil war. Counting such massive deaths and challenges dead, Americans begin to realize that numbers and figures represent more than knowledge; According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, he had power.
“It would seem that the provision of objective knowledge promised a foundation for control in a reality to avoid the limits of imagination,” Faust writes in “This Republic of Suffering”, with Civil War leading to death How it changed the relationship of Americans.
“Numbers,” she wrote, “represented a means of applying meaning and order to what Walt Whitman described as the ‘uncountable graves’ of the eternal dead.” ”
Today’s Americans have an example of seeing and understanding 100,000 people – dead and alive. They have many comparisons.
For example: Beaver Stadium, often seen on TV as home to Penn State football and one of the nation’s largest sports venues, when there are 106,572 people across. The 2018 estimated population of South Bend, Indiana was 101,860. About 100,000 people visit the Statue of Liberty every 10 days.
The total amount of deaths from the American Civil War – combat and otherwise – was 655,000. It was over 116,000 for World War I, over 405,000 for World War II, and over 36,000 and 58,000 wars for Korean and Vietnam respectively. Those people do not include non-American deaths.
Gun violence killed more than 37,000 people in the United States between 2014 and 2018 in an average year. And 9/11 killed exactly 2,996 people, a figure the American Coronavirus tally passed in early April.
At some point with the number, however, things start to seem more abstract and less sensible. It has informed the method of recall of the Holocaust by mankind: the death of 6 million Jews, after all, among many others, a figure so vast that it resists understanding.
“It is very difficult for people to understand statistics when it comes to numbers after a certain scale,” says Lorenzo Cervitza, assistant professor of literature and medicine at Lehigh University.
“Can you take a picture of 30,000 people or 50,000 people? And when you reach millions, what do you do with it?” He says. “It is outside our everyday lives to make it difficult to make sense of them.”
The New York Times on Sunday tried to address the problem, dedicating its entire page to making the virus dead – an exercise that, even in a small typeface, was now only 1% visited. “One count,” the newspaper said, “only so much is revealed.”
Adding to the complexity is how coronoviruses die, say, a 9/11, a mass shooting or a natural disaster. Unlike those, the COVID saga is unfolding slowly over time, steadily growing more critically, and resists the time-tested American hunger for loud and urgent stories.
“Every day we’ve become so accustomed to the new reality that we don’t realize how far we’ve traveled beyond normal,” says Darryl Van Tongren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, who studies How do people get Meaning in sorrow.
Our brain, he says, is wired to sympathize with suffering – to a point.
“Van Tongren says,” With time suffering too much, it gets heavier and we start becoming callgirls. And our sympathy inevitably ceases. “We are accustomed to death in 100,000 right now, so our sympathy has diminished.”
Finally, there are numbers living within 100,000 numbers that cry out for their interpretations. For example, a disproportionate number of dead Americans of color. Or systematically ravaging the places where older Americans live, taking them in numbers – if they were dying in mass shootings – could spark a very different response.
Do not focus so much on numbers, some adjectives. Others criticize official calculations, calling them inflated and inaccurate. More likely, the number of 100,000s decreases considerably due to spotty tests and unsolicited cases.
But regardless of whether 100,000 have already happened or are yet to come, the meaning of this numerical milestone – human-imposed though it may be – raises some fundamental questions.
Have we decided to live with death, at least at one point? What would it mean if, around Labor Day, we discussed the 200,000th dead American at this location? What do we have to ponder because of that number?
In the 14th century, the Black Death devastated humanity, with many millions more. Nobody knows how many died. Today, when the dead are counted, there is some harmony. The thinking is this: if the virus cannot be stopped, at least it can be determined by human effort – far more synergy than a society where we could not establish, which was no longer among us.
“We like clean stories like humans,” says Roland Minton, a professor of mathematics at Ranoke College, Virginia. “And classifying things by number of digits can be a good, clear way to classify things.”
So when Whitman wrote about “countless graves”, they were not merely poetic. Again, the idea of Uncounted Dead was more than a metaphor; It was a direct description of what had happened.
Replacing that situation with exact numbers, as society became more sophisticated, did not resolve everything. But it was something. Like this week in American Life means 100,000. Probably not everything – not a vaccine, not a treatment – and perhaps not clarity, at all. not now. but some.
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