The coronavirus pandemic has been described as an invisible war, but the only comparable figures come from conflicts long in our rearview mirror. On February 6, COVID-19 claimed its first victim on U.S. soil: a 57-year-old woman in Santa Clara County, California. On Tuesday, less than three months later, the death toll has surpassed the number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat during the nine-year-long Vietnam War (not including those killed outside the theater of war).
On April 11, the United States surpassed Italy to set a grim record: highest confirmed coronavirus death toll in the world. Now, there are over a million cases and 58,365 deaths—a third of the global caseload and a quarter of total deaths.
An estimated 47,434 American soldiers were killed in battle during the Vietnam War, which spanned from 1964 to 1975. An additional 10,786 died in the theater of war, but out of battle, making a total of 58,220 deaths. (Conflict casualty statistics differentiate between soldiers and civilians, and between deaths in the theater of war and outside it.)
The current coronavirus death toll also surpasses the U.S. lives lost in the Korean War—36,574 Americans killed in battle and in the theater of war combined—and World War I, in which 53,402 Americans died in battle. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, U.S. deaths have numbered fewer than 7,000.
In late March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced that an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from COVID-19. Ten days later, he lowered that figure to 60,000—a number that is already almost obsolete.
Early data shows that the virus is disproportionately affecting both men and communities of color. African Americans comprise more than a fifth of the dead, according to a study on April 27, making the mortality rate 2.7 times higher than for white Americans.
It’s been many decades since Americans died en masse on U.S. soil. The last comparable historic death toll was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans. More recently, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left 1,200 people dead. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, killed 2,977.
If Fauci’s higher projection materializes, deaths related to COVID-19 will still pale next to the American Civil War, in which nearly a half million Americans died, and World War II, in which 291,557 died in battle. But compared to war and disasters that the majority of Americans alive today can remember, this pandemic is on pace to set deadly records.