Why our minds can't make sense of COVID-19's enormous death toll

As we reach grim milestones—200,000 dead in the U.S. and one million globally—our new challenge is overcoming the natural tendency to go numb.

Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux
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Funeral director Omar Rodriguez inventoried bodies, all coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victims bound for cremation, in the main chapel of the Gerard J. Neufeld Funeral Home in Queens, New York, April 26, 2020.

Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux

When the COVID-19 pandemic started nine months ago, the current reported death tolls were unthinkable. Yet this week, the fatality count has reached 200,000 people in the United States, and global deaths have exceeded one million.

Although health officials say the real toll is likely much higher, due to a percentage of coronavirus deaths not being officially classified, the 200,000 statistic is a heartbreaking milestone. It’s a symbolic grim number that’s seared into the public’s consciousness and marks another alarming level of escalation in the pandemic.

The tally means a U.S. death has happened every 1.5 minutes, on average, since the first official fatality in late February. It’s also the equivalent of wiping out a small city—such as Salt Lake City, Utah or Akron, Ohio—or a quarter of Washington, D.C. It means we have lost 1,450 plane loads full of people. (Here's where cases are growing and declining in the U.S.)

“If you think about it like that, assuming there are 138 seats in a classic 737, that would mean eight planes have crashed on U.S. soil every day,” says David Kessler, Los Angeles-based grief specialist and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. “Can you even imagine that?”

Although that number is fodder for disturbing mental images, what’s unknown is how it will affect people’s collective and individual psyches. Is 200,000 deaths an important threshold that kicks us in the gut and creates a new level of urgency and outrage? Or will it lead to numbness and disengagement?

Ultimately, our biology is working against us. Researchers say our brains aren’t wired to make sense of big numbers. We’re also trying to digest coronavirus death tolls amid a sea of other worries, including economic uncertainty, civil unrest, wildfires and hurricanes, geopolitical strife, election tensions, and unprecedented shifts in how we work, shop, socialize, and educate our children.

“The whole country is depressed,” says Elke Weber, a Princeton University cognitive psychologist. “If you’re already stressed out, the 200,000 statistic becomes just another thing.”

But experts say there are ways to absorb and cope with the news without feeling overwhelmed or apathetic.

Arithmetic of compassion

More tragedy doesn’t always elicit more empathy; it can counterintuitively bring about apathy. The magnitude of the death toll can cause some people to become less compassionate, says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, due to a phenomenon he calls “psychic numbing.”

In a 2014 study that looked at charitable giving, Slovic found that people’s concern for those in distress didn’t increase as the number of needy cases did. “Our feelings are very strong for one person in danger, but they don’t scale up very well,” he says. “If there are two people, you don’t feel twice as bad. Your attention gets divided, and you don’t have as strong an emotional connection.”

Slovic suggests our brains evolved this way as a coping mechanism. Millions of years ago, humans weren’t even aware of distant people’s plagues, conflicts, or disasters, so we naturally focused on protecting ourselves, our families, and our small communities.

In addition, the long duration of the pandemic, combined with the absence of a clear end, can dull people’s sense of shock, other experts say. Simply put, some brains have gotten used to hearing about COVID-19 deaths to the point where higher numbers no longer register emotionally.

“The human species is really adaptive,” says Weber, who studies how people make decisions when facing risks and uncertainty. “If you think about people living in a war zone, the kind of thing that was once appalling becomes normal. Our brain neurons fire when something changes, but they stop after a while. If you’re in a room with a bad smell, you eventually stop noticing it.”

This feeling of being in the middle of a crisis has prevented us from mourning and creating the types of memorials that help us connect with victims, such as the inscribed names of loved ones that people can visit and touch the September 11 Memorial in New York City, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Those rituals usually are created after an event has occurred or when a crisis has ended, says Yu-Ru Lin, an associate professor at the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

In her research, Lin has documented people’s emotional reactions on social media to “short-term and shocking” events or natural disasters, such as this study about the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. She has found that being able to express a surge of emotions after the defined event helped people cope.

Viral memes that often circulate on social media following certain tragedies can also spark emotional responses that resonate, such as how the horrific image of a Syrian refugee toddler who washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015 led to record donations to help victims of Syria’s civil war.

Having an actual place to go where the tragedy occurred and perhaps even bring flowers has also been key to processing grief. “When I studied the [2013] Boston Marathon bombing, people had gatherings and ceremonies after the event and would even have an anniversary event to remember these losses,” Lin says.

By contrast, the coronavirus is everywhere, and people don’t have a way to process their amorphous, long-haul grief. No single iconic photo that conveys the gravity of the pandemic has emerged and prompted mass indignation. Due to restrictions on social gatherings, many family members of victims cannot even attend funerals, let alone visit memorials that haven’t been built.

There’s also the fact that while the death toll is high, most people in the U.S. haven’t yet experienced the loss of a loved one, and that makes a big and grave number feel more remote.

“These impacted communities are quite invisible to many people, unless you know of someone in your social network,” says Lin. “For others, the loss is more ambiguous,” like the interruptions to normal life or not being able to visit people in the hospital.

Another reason some people are tempted to check out emotionally is that humans struggle with tolerating the uncertainty of whether COVID-19 will surge in the winter or whether and when an effective and safe vaccine will become available. A common stress response to unpleasant thoughts is to deny them or simply shut them out.

“It calms us down,” says Mardi Horowitz, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies grief and trauma.

No excuse for apathy

So how can we make sense of such heavy news?

“When we see this death toll, it makes us feel frightened and sad. The important thing is to tolerate the pain and think reasonably what we can do to help people through it,” says Horowitz. He adds that it’s important to acknowledge feelings of indignation, hopelessness, and despair—and then move through them. “We have to strive for the middle ground in these extremes. It makes people feel better and restores our collective goals,” he says.

The best way to avoid compassion fatigue is to think of individuals with faces, names, and families, says Slovic. “Someone once observed, Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” he says. Not surprisingly, his research found that people were more likely to donate to needy children when they saw photos and learned more about their circumstances.

The same principle holds true for coronavirus victims. Death tolls become more meaningful when we have a chance to get to know and honor the people who are gone, says Kessler. “People are hitting the wall because we’re talking about these deaths in every other way except loss,” he says. “It’s a political device or a medical crisis or a mask debate. We’re not talking about Juan’s mother or Susan’s brother.”

Kessler says a healthy coping mechanism is to use those personal connections to motivate positive change. “Maybe you witness a mask debate and you tell people, I heard that Jane’s brother died. Do you see that 200,000 people also died? Maybe you could cover your nose,” he says.

Our limited capacity and our desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings shouldn’t allow us to disengage, says Kessler. In fact, he argues that numbness can fuel much-needed action. “When I visited the death camps at Auschwitz, I saw the shoes and glasses of the people who died, and it made me numb. But when I left, I said to my numbness, What can I do to prevent this?” says Kessler. “Numbness should not let us off the hook.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the U.S. death toll has surpassed 200,000 and that the global tally has reached one million. This story was originally published on September 21.