On Monday morning, as I write, 154,944 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. By the time you read this, we will have surpassed 155,000 lives lost. At least 4.7 million Americans have been infected, the largest number for any country in the world. Without stricter social distancing and compliance with masking, we could surpass 300,000 deaths by the end of the year.
These numbers are staggering. But in the whirlwind of so much bad news every day, the data can all too easily be dismissed as so much white noise. Unless you’re a heroic front-line medical worker or have lost a loved one to this insidious virus, the daily uptick of infections and deaths is numbing.
Over the weekend, I started reading Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, a story about a small seaside town in northern Algeria that is swept by a resurgence of the bubonic plague. As a mysterious epidemic of dying rats gives way to a rising number of people perishing, the protagonist, Dr. Rieux, becomes increasingly convinced that this is the same plague that killed 50 million people across Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 14th century. But he struggles to persuade the local authorities to warn the population and impose public health restrictions, such as quarantines.
Trying to wrap his mind around the implications, Rieux recalls what he knows about the Black Death and other plagues throughout human history—that combined, perhaps 30 pandemics had accounted for about a hundred million deaths:
But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination.
Remembering the first recorded account of bubonic plague by the sixth century court historian Procopius, who attested that 10,000 citizens of Constantinople died in one day, Rieux cynically tries to think of a way to convey the magnitude of that loss:
Two thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means. Then at least you could add some familiar faces to the anonymous mass.
How do we comprehend the loss of so many Americans so far, with no end in sight?
Here in Massachusetts, Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, has a maximum seating capacity of nearly 66,000. The Coronavirus has killed enough Americans to fill the stadium two-and-a-third times.
About 52,500 graduate and undergraduate students attended Ohio State University in Columbus in 2018, the nation’s largest university. The Coronavirus has killed more than three times that many individuals.
In its 2019 review of the 25 best small towns in America, Architectural Digest listed Traverse City, Michigan, population 15,000, as Number 1. The Coronavirus has wiped out the equivalent of Traverse City more than 10 times over.
The Boeing 777, the world’s largest twin jet airplane, can hold up to 451 passengers in a two-class set-up. The Coronavirus has killed as many people as if 344 fully occupied 777s had crashed, with no survivors.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from 1775 to 1991, the total number of American troops killed in battle since our nation’s founding was 651,031 souls. Without changing our behavior nationwide, we may be almost halfway to that total in December. Let that sink in. In less than a year, if Americans continue to argue about whether proven scientific evidence that wearing masks in public, staying six feet apart, and being vigilant about social distancing and mask-wearing indoors can stanch the spread of COVID-19, then we could lose nearly half as many people as all the American soldiers who died on the battlefield over the course of more than two centuries of our nation’s history.
For the love of God, for the sake of everyone, even if it’s inconvenient or too hot or too scratchy, when you’re in public: PLEASE WEAR A MASK.
Image: Gillette Stadium, Wikipedia.