Math is Hard

I have always found numbers more thorny than letters. Time makes very little practical sense to my brain, and I often forget how old I am. Numbers are, in many ways, something I actively avoid.

But I think they may be the only thing that can convince some Americans to change behavior now and for the foreseeable future.

As of this writing, 11,893 worldwide deaths from Covid-19 have been reported. Do you find that shocking? Shocking on the level of, say, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995? That April day 168 people died. Shocking on the level of 9/11? That horrific day saw 2,977 deaths. Still the number does not yet approach the truly harrowing numbers lost to slave trade or holocaust or certain famines and revolts. That is true.

Still, I wonder if for some Covid-19 doesn’t seem so urgent to their daily lives because those 11,893 deaths did not happen in a single shocking and wicked act. Or because they largely remain nameless and faceless. Or because they are scattered over time and distance. I am uncertain.

Maybe if we had a graphic that represented those 11,893 humans in a stadium, an auditorium, or a field. Maybe then we could begin some neural connection between the disease and the loss of life. Numbers are hard, and these particular numbers are some of the hardest. Actively avoiding them will only deepen them to our collective loss.

The CDC reported that 2.8 million Americans died in 2017. If the worst-case scenario happens under Covid-19, 2.2 million Americans might die from this disease alone, nearly our 2017 annual death toll in this country. How many more will die across the globe? How many more will die from diseases that were not screened, like cancer, or treated because we failed to supply the medical infrastructure adequately? That is a number we cannot know.

Maybe if we had a graphic that represented 2.2 million humans in a single space. Maybe that would cement the price of movement, the power of containment, in our minds. I am uncertain.

The economic numbers are a different shape altogether. Just as mean. Just as potentially devastating. There is no easy answer. Containment and movement restriction come at a price, too. In jobs, in lives lost to domestic abuse, substance abuse, poverty, and mental and physical health failings, in economic sustainability.

It feels that we are in a King Solomon moment, except that any solution cuts the baby in half.

So perhaps at the end of it all, the numbers themselves are not the things that will make the decisions, the impacts, the neural connections. Perhaps the tipping point is simply what one can spiritually, emotionally, and mentally live with having done or not having done and what they cannot. Alas! No graphic can sort that one into a tidy representation. No number can drive it or explain it. I can only hope each of us examines it for ourselves.

What say you?

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