COVID-19 in the USA, Measured in Tragedies

The last few months have been devastating to our societies, our economies, and our ability to get out of bed before attending meetings. In anticipation of the tumultuous days that inevitably lie immediately ahead, I wanted to get out some thoughts about the pandemic. COVID-19 is, among many other things, a collection of “big” numbers—more than 40 million cases worldwide, almost 1.2 million deaths, and so on. At least for me, when the numbers get this big, I have trouble visualizing them, and need a kind of visual aid. This post is going to be mostly USA-centric, simply because (1) I live here and (2) our collective response to COVID-19 has been comically egregious. I hope the interested reader can proportionately scale their anguish to the global scale.

COVID-19 first began as a rapidly spreading infection originating in China’s Wuhan province (a friend of mine on the ground reported at the time the empty streets and desolate airports). According to the New York Times, new cases then started sprouting across the world COVID-19, first entering the United Sates on January 21st. By any objective metric, the response of the United States to the pandemic was extremely inadequate, both on the governmental level, where top governmental officials (most famously the president) denied the pandemic’s severity, to the local level, where anti-quarantine and anti-mask protests rocked the country.

One of a series of emails on which I have had the great misfortune of being the receiving end.

On the day of writing (Halloween 2020), COVID-19 has infected more than 9 million people (2.7% of the population) and killed 230,000 in the United States alone, with little signs of an end (these are only the reported figures; there are some indications that the number dead is more than 300,000). I wanted to focus here on the latter number, since the sheer enormity of this number kept me awake at night. Roundabout a few hundred or thousand, I think numbers of this size become very difficult for humans to truly visualize on their own. I would humbly like to demonstrate the sense of scale of the pandemic in the USA alone, using a few simple calculations to visualize it size:

Every 3.7 days, imagine turning on the television and watching another 9/11 happen. A total of 2,977 people died in the horrifying attacks on September 11th, 2001. As of today, approximately the same number of people have died as would have if 9/11 happened 77 times.

Imagine that every four minutes, you received a headline about a new school shooting. The average school shooting has two victims. If for some twisted reason this doesn’t seem that significant, this is equivalent to 64 Columbines, or 29 Sandy Hooks, happening every day for almost nine and a half months.

Every day, imagine that every twelfth baby born in the US on that day was thrown straight into a volcano. On average, about 10,000 babies are born every day in the US, and, in recent months, an average of about 800 die of COVID-19 each day.

Imagine killing all dentists in the entire United States, and then committing 10 nine-elevens afterwards. There are about 200,000 dentists in the United States, which is lower than the number of people who have died in the US due to COVID-19, so I had to top it off.

Imagine you had 3.7 TVs which were all playing the first Hunger Games movie on repeat, 24/7. Now imagine that any time a tribute dies, you shoot someone in the head. Unfortunately, the number isn’t round in this case, but 22 tributes die in the Hunger Games movie (spoiler alert), which has a runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes.

Imagine nuking both Guam and Bermuda, with no survivors. Guam and Bermuda have together a total population about 230,000 people. As a reminder, this is the deaths in the United States alone.

Imagine every time somebody died in a car crash (back before shelter-in-place), both of their parents, all four of their grandparents, their spouse, and their child were all murdered. According to the National Safety Council, an estimated 38,800 people died in 2019 in automobile accidents. I’m assuming of course that everyone’s parents and grandparents are still alive and that all of these people are married and also have a child. I argue that this emphasizes how contrived the example needed to be, that COVID-19 kills almost eight people per pre-quarantine car crash death in the US.

Imagine that every new naturalized US citizen was also given cancer upon receiving their citizenship. This is not any specific kind of cancer but just any cancer, averaged over all the kinds of cancer you can get. Based off of the numbers, it seems like a rough average of about 800,000 people are naturalized every year in the US. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all cancers combined is about 30% today. This produces an estimate a bit short of how many people are actually dying from COVID every day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of FAQ that developers write by imagining every possible question they can think of (without consulting the baffled public), but an actual compilation of questions which have dominated our discourse for the last ten months.

Why should I care about COVID-19 if I’m young and am unlikely to die?

I humbly suggest that you should care about the wellbeing about humans in your community that aren’t yourself. However, in case you’re looking for a selfish reason, apparently healthy young people can die and have died of COVID-19, and even those who don’t die may suffer severe lung damage, blood clots, and other unforeseen risks (and dead parents).

Why should I care about COVID-19 if I’m old and have already had a good life?

I’m not really sure what to say to this except that you should stop voting for politicians who believe the correct approach to stopping COVID-19 is to sacrifice you instead of coming up with an even slightly more sensible approach to the pandemic.

Heart disease/cancer/strokes kill many more people. Aren’t you blowing this a bit out of proportion?

Despite the fact that heart disease and strokes are extremely difficult medical dilemmas, we put our top scientists and billions of dollars into trying to fix these problems. We also rightly expend a great deal of effort into saving people from murders, fires, hurricanes, rare diseases, and terrorist attacks, despite the immense difficulty and the comparatively few people affected. If you could prevent hundreds of thousands of people from dying just by staying home, why wouldn’t you?

I’m only a single person. Will my actions really make a diference?

Yes. Because an infected person (even one who is asymptomatic) can easily infect dozens/hundreds of people, the early-time behavior of disease spread is exponential. One person being responsible could counterintuitively save a vast number of lives.

Why don’t we just bite the bullet and try to achieve herd immunity?

Without vaccines, herd immunity is achieved by a large fraction of the population contracting and then recovering from COVID-19. Setting aside murky hints that people can recover and be reinfected, the majority of the US contracting COVID-19 would kill an even more unconscionably large number of people.

These examples are over the top…

Why? Does someone’s life matter any less if their death doesn’t belong in Pulp Fiction? People dying should be disturbing.

This shelter-in-place is taking away the best years of my life!

I’m not really sure how good the best years of your life could be if you die young, or you have to spend your twenties organizing your family’s funerals.

We need to focus on the economy, I need to feed my kids!

This is a totally valid concern—the pandemic has devastated the economic situations of many people who have been laid off in country-wide furloughs with unemployment soaring, and people across the country are worried about how to make ends meet. The correct course of action here is very unclear, but it probably takes the form of more responsible governmental stimulus policy than allowing the pandemic to devastate our most vulnerable community members.

Masks don’t work.


Could we really be doing better? We have the greatest health care system in the entire world!

Yes we can. Some countries like New Zealand which responsibly handled the pandemic from the beginning are virtually COVID-free, and, while many countries still have more pessimistic outlooks, their death rates have plateaued while our total cases are peaking for the third time. Despite only having 4% of the world’s population, the USA accounts for 20% of the world’s cases and 19% of its deaths. Also, ask any Canadian or European if they would trade their healthcare for yours.

The first thing that shows up when I type “covid cases usa” into Google, because this information is actually really accessible and there’s no excuse for being ignorant of our situation.

This is crazy! Are you saying we should pay for every person’s healthcare in the US?


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