When numbers become names

Close inspection of coronavirus infection rates and numbers of deaths, whilst on the face of it quite easy to understand are actually much harder to truly comprehend. It was quite easy to understand the numbers during the early phases of the pandemic. Dozens. A football team in essence. Then it was a hundred. That’s like two American football teams. Still the kind of number that one can visualise. Not long after that hundred had become a thousand. But at this point I begin to detach. What does a thousand people look like? Well, I guess it’s a theatre full. But I can’t now see the faces so the number is already becoming abstract. Ten thousand? Simply beyond my visual comprehension. Let me put those kind of numbers in context.

At Pearl Harbor, 2403 Americans and allied personnel died. On 911, 3000 died. During the whole of the US War of Independence, 6800 American soldiers were killed. The invasion of Normandy accounted for 4413 lives on D-Day. At Gettysburg 7058 Federal and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. History has taught us to accept these as huge numbers. Yet they pale into insignificance compared with the casualties from coronavirus. At time of writing (20 April 2020) the number of UK lives lost to coronavirus is 16,509. At the current rate of rise the number of American dead (41,356 today) will exceed the 58,000 US military deaths in the Vietnam war within 10 days. Coronavirus is rampaging through the record books.

You might expect loss of life at this level to render the dead anonymous, with makeshift mortuaries hurriedly erected in parks and mass burials even being shown on the news. Yet, paradoxically, the sheer scale of the mortality has personalised the illness. No longer is the person with coronavirus “that old chap who lives on the corner two streets away but I don’t really know him”. Now it’s “Mrs Brown, three doors along, used to take the kids to school when I was busy”. Coronavirus has given names to the dead. We all know somebody now. Beforehand, we all knew somebody who knew somebody. It’s getting closer.

For a brief moment, we will know the names. We will know they are or who they were. We will have shared conversations, touched each other’s lives, walked beside each other. And then perhaps, as swiftly as their names emerged, they will be lost again in death’s daily deluge, numbers once more.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can still change things. But let’s hear no more of that “it’s a bit like flu”. Nor is it “a cough and chills”. You don’t build field hospitals and mortuaries for that. Let’s be under no illusion about this virus. It’s very nasty indeed. We have no treatments. We have no vaccine. We have nothing we can do except prevent the spread of it. So stay isolated and wash your hands. A lot.