Pandemic Death Counts Are Numbing. There’s Another Way to Process

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What does he do seems incalculable? How does the unfathomable feel? Can you hear the unimaginable?

We are in the midst of the largest mass mortality event in U.S. history, and our ability to make sense of the situation is challenged by both the scale of the disaster and the dominance of a particular type of rationality. More Americans have died from Covid-19 than from World War I, World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, September 11, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq war together. As of July 13, 2022, the CDC reports 1,018,035 deaths due to Covid-19 in the US. We will continue to see deaths from COVID in the foreseeable future: as I write, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. begin to increase as strain BA.5 takes over.

However, for many of us, deaths from Covid have occurred far beyond our vision, often literally kidnapped from institutions such as care centers, prisons and hospitals. What we have are official mortality counts, rational accounts, and certified, recorded, and aggregated death counts. It’s hard to wrap the mind around more than a million dead. We already fought on May 24, 2020, when the New York News front page described the deaths of 100,000 Americans as an “incalculable loss.” Two years later, as we approached the threshold of one million deaths in March 2022, journalist Ed Yong asked, “What is ten times incalculable?”

In Yong’s Impossible Equation, I hear an echo of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of the sublime mathematician, a scale or scope beyond imagination. According to Kant, the sublime mathematician is frustrated because he is too old to be understood in an immediate way. He goes on to argue that precisely this imaginative limit is also the source of our pleasure; large-scale things require the use of our rational faculty (he means logical and quantitative) to measure it, so that it can be understood.

According to Kant, the purpose of this measurement and recording is to allow the mind to maintain an unimaginable scale with the help of paper or other visual means, allowing human reason and a few tools to control something like the number of catastrophic deaths. For Kant, this process of controlling what might otherwise seem beyond human comprehension is both intellectually useful and pleasurable.

This is a pleasure born of mastery and control. A pleasure rooted in the kind of human hubris that states that if we can count something, we know it and that is all we need. By focusing our attention on accuracy and presentation issues (“with Covid” vs. “Covid” and new vs. old CDC control panels, for example), our quantitative tools run the risk of hampering our ability to mourn the dead, repair our communities, and grow. These intellectual pleasures have their utility, but they are often spectacularly unsuitable for mourning and reparation processes.

The Western use of mortality counts not only for managing death at the administrative level, but also emotionally, it has long been dating back at least to the 16th century. But visceralizing data can provide us with a way to continue to quantitatively track disaster deaths while fostering a national mourning process.

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