Editorial: COVID's bleak milestone is more than a number; it's a measure of human losses

  • A registered nurse is illuminated by the glow of a computer monitor as a physician examines a COVID-19 patient in Memphis, Missouri, last November.

    A registered nurse is illuminated by the glow of a computer monitor as a physician examines a COVID-19 patient in Memphis, Missouri, last November. Associated Press File Photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted2/23/2021 1:00 AM

It is human nature to track the magnitude of disaster in numbers, but there is something more we must not forget.

For nearly a year, we have followed daily reports on the numerical impact of COVID-19. This many new infections today. This many new deaths. Always sifting through the figures for some insight into the impact of the disease, some cause for hope of an end to the disruptions that have defined life around the world throughout this crisis.


On some days, the process shudders with special meaning, new revelations. Monday was such a day.

A half-million U.S. dead.

It took four months to reach 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in America last March. By the end of September, we had just passed 200,000. In the next four months, the toll doubled. It took just 34 days to produce the next block of 100,000 deaths and push us beyond Monday's grim milestone.

The head swims in numbers. So, we look for comparisons.

Monday's half-million deaths, for example, effectively negates the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and more than exceeds that of, take your pick, Atlanta, Omaha or Miami. By more unnerving standards, the toll exceeds the number of American soldiers killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. It is hurtling toward the 675,000 Americans who died in the brutal pandemic of 1918.

We are told that things are improving, and, again, we can trace the numbers in search of hope. According to The New York Times, the seven-day average of new cases has plummeted by 183,000 -- a decline of 62 percent -- since peaking on Jan. 11. The CDC says more than 44 million people have gotten at least one vaccine shot and nearly 20 million are fully vaccinated. Closer to home, daily deaths in Illinois now are routinely in double, rather than triple, digits -- just 41 on Monday -- and 571,260 Illinoisans have been vaccinated, nearly 4.5% of the state's population.

Yes, whether for comfort or somber perspective, we read the story of the coronavirus in figures. Even so, we must resist the inclination to get lost in them, for when you or your family is touched by the worst outcome of which this virus is capable, the scope of the tragedy suddenly resounds in devastatingly human terms.

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Each of those half-million fatalities is something much more than a digit on a grotesque and ever-escalating balance sheet. She or he is a brother, a daughter, a husband, a mother, a grandfather, a niece, a nephew, a colleague, a beloved friend.

A person.

And the pain of loss radiates out from the immediate victim to all those friends, colleagues and family, near and distant, who make up the grand circle of a single human life.

So, yes, we have lost enough people to wipe out Long Beach, California, and then some. We can count COVID's victims in the cruel arithmetic of war dead or the toll of historic catastrophes.

But let's never forget that this fight ultimately is not about the counting. It is about saving every wife, father, aunt, pastor, pal, teacher, cop, nurse, doctor, grandmother or co-worker we can. For that reason, compassionate Americans wear masks in public, keep their distance from others, wash their hands frequently and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

These are the practices that ultimately will lead to numbers that encourage us and enable us to live the lives we had before March 2020. More importantly, they are the practices that respect -- and protect -- the individuals those numbers represent.

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