A Million Gone

A woman looks over flags on the National Mall, commemorating the COVID dead - Getty Images

As a professional student of human behavior, I know it’s all the rage to bash journalists these days. In fact, it’s all the rage to be enraged, period.  But I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to single out some working-stiff reporters for praise, because they deserve it. The other day I was reading the Associated Press  - the news wire that media types often peruse when they want to rip something off without attribution – and came across a package by Adam Geller, Carla K. Johnson, Heather Hollingsworth, and David Goldman. They noticed something that too many of us seem to have forgotten: that since the onset of COVID, a million of our fellow Americans have disappeared from the face of the earth.

But first, permit me an extended detour. We can quibble about whether we’ve reached a million yet.  The Worldometer site, which tends to run a higher count, says that we’ve already reached  1,014,114 as of this writing. That, of course, will tick up again before I press “publish” on this discussion thread. The Johns Hopkins COVID tracker, which tends toward leaner counts – even though they always catch Worldometer’s totals eventually - has us at 987,560 (with 6,190,360 global deaths). Even if we go with the lower count, at the current seven-day average of 510 deaths per day (the lowest the death toll has been since August of 2021), we’d still hit a million dead in 24 more days.

And how many is a million? Well think of it as such: the population of the U.S. in 2020, when the plague kicked off, was 329 million. Which means one out of every 329 Americans have died of COVID (or with COVID, as COVID deniers often like to phrase it). How many is that? Picture it this way. If you went to a Jets or Giants game at MetLife Stadium, the NFL’s largest-capacity stadium at 82,500 people, and one out of every 329 people dropped dead by the fourth quarter, that would mean by the time you headed for your car or to suicide prevention counseling (since neither team has had a winning season since 2016), there would be 250 dead fellow fans.

Louis C.K., the #MeToo’ed comedian, took a break from beating his bishop to record a stand-up special last year, and he had a funny bit on the stupid counting games we play, like the one I just played out before you:

We liked counting the dead. And when it got really high, we didn’t know how to count them anymore, people trying to find different ways to express the number or take it in. Remember January?....3,000 people every day were dying of COVID, so people started saying this… “This is 9/11 every day. This is literally 9-11 every day.” When did we start measuring deaths in 9/11s? When did that become the new, “how many football fields long is it,” for mass death?  How many 9/11s was World War II? Can we look it up? I know the Holocaust was 2,000 9/11s. 9/11 wasn’t that bad, it was just one. Only one 9/11 of people died on 9/11. That’s like nobody died that day.

We higher-thinking primates seem to need nice fat round numbers to get our heads around things. But whether it’s a million, or a little shy, who cares? However you cut it, it’s still a lot of dead people. Which is the (very) long way around the barn of me saying why I liked the AP stories.  Because their authors didn’t just emphasize the numerical abstractions that tend to distance us from what’s actually happened. They concentrated on the people themselves, the ones who died, and those they’ve left behind.  (COVID has deprived an estimated 194,000 children in the U.S. of either one or both of their parents.)

There was the brother of the late Fernando Morales, who was fingering the bass guitar that his sibling always used to play with a blue bucket hat pulled low over his eyes.  Any time he was going through difficulty, he’d call his brother for reassurance and unconditional love. Now he’s left listening to Fernando’s old phone messages just to hear his voice. 

There’s the Yuma widow of a 59-year-old lettuce and cauliflower farmer, Luis Alfonso, who kept piloting his tractor even after he started feeling sick. He insisted he’d labor on. Two weeks later, he ended up intubated in the hospital, his body racked by the virus and a heart attack, before he succumbed.  Some evenings, she still imagines him sitting on their living-room couch, asking the kids about their day at school.  Some days, she drives past the fields he plowed, imaging him on his tractor. “It’s time to get rid of his clothes, but……” she said, unable to finish the thought. “There are times that I feel completely alone. And I still can’t believe it.”

There are many more stories like this. They are harrowing and beautiful and difficult to read. They’re the kind of stories we read non-stop in the days that followed 9/11. But the sort that seem to be thin-on-the-ground now, considering the sheer number of people who have suffered the same fate.  After 9/11, our national mantra was “never forget.” But with COVID, it seems to be, “Don’t start remembering.” In fact, it’s hard to remember things you never acknowledged in the first place.

Which leads me to take this to group, so you can put in your two cents.  As usual, no cursing, no high-sticking, etc. If you’re not already a subscriber, now’s the time to become one so you, too, can participate.

Some conversation starters:  What happened to us? How did something that should’ve united us become the most polarizing event of the last several already-polarized decades?  Were we so busy haggling over masks or vaccines or who most deserved a beatdown (Donald Trump or Dr. Fauci), that we forgot the actual human toll?  Was all the barking at each other just catharsis, or a way of whistling past the graveyard to take our minds off the way life had been altered?  Do fill me in, because I’m still a tad confused by it all.