When What’s Staggering Isn’t: Seeing Sad Truths

The US has now passed the staggering statistic of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths (global deaths are approaching one million).

That’s the equivalent of:
66 days of 9/11 attacks
109 Hurricane Katrinas
Almost 1,200 Oklahoma City bombings
1,450 full commercial planes, or eight plane crashes every day of our six-month quarantine
The combined US death toll from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf

If things keep going as they have been, researchers project that another 180,000 people may die by January 1, 2021, almost double our current numbers.

Our brains aren’t wired to comprehend such big numbers, especially when we’re already tapped out by all the factors involved in this never-before experience: we’re depressed from dealing with economic uncertainty, managing work or unemployment while also navigating online school alongside our children, changes to how we do all the details of life, and a volatile upcoming election amidst social unrest.

Of course it’s a lot, and our sense of shock has dulled with each new report. Add to that the reality that many of us don’t yet know personally someone who has died as a result of COVID-19, and that traditional methods of coping with grief such as memorial services have been restricted during the pandemic, and we simply don’t know how to respond.

It’s no wonder that, in the moments when the pain and grief of this unthinkable situation to which we cannot foresee an end seeps through our vulnerable cracks, we prefer to numb out instead. We downplay it, imagining it’s not that bad, or that it won’t happen here, that it won’t affect our families or our kids’ schools.

I have been extremely cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t like wearing a mask (not that anyone does) so I’ve mostly stayed home and walked the dogs. In six months I’ve been on one restaurant patio and in two stores. My husband has done all our grocery shopping.

I’m not in a high risk group. And while being a natural rule follower partly explains my response, it occurred to me the other day that I also learned early that you can be careful and still be party to unexpected, shocking results.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

During my senior year of high school I took a Child Development class with the absolute best, wackiest teacher ever. If you remember Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus children’s educational books and TV series (voiced by the fabulous Lily Tomlin), she was just as wonderful and memorable. She intended to encourage us to expand our knowledge while also having fun and learning practical lessons, so we did a lot of role playing and simulations.

For instance, one time we pretended we were medical interns doing rounds with our attending physician (Teacher) diagnosing issues related to postpartum women and/or their babies. I’ve forgotten a lot of things I learned in high school, but when my own babies were born I recalled specific lessons from that class.

That year, 1986-87, AIDS was taking center stage among major health issues, and our teacher organized a simulation to help us see up close something that felt remote to us. Because our class consisted primarily of young women, she invited the men’s choral group that met during the same hour to join us – which heightened the fun factor for sure.

We all received a slip of paper with a number on it and instructions to stand up, mingle, and exchange numbers with people we “liked.” We each wrote the other’s number on our paper to effectively contact trace, though we wouldn’t have known to call it that.

We pretended to be college students at a party deciding who we would hook up with. Insightful teacher that she was, she anticipated that the good little church girl would be disinclined to swap numbers, so she specified that everyone had to exchange numbers at least once. Unbeknownst to me, she also designated me Patient Zero, a recipient of bad blood.

Within the simulation, my one-time number swap led to a substantial percentage of my classmates becoming “infected” with AIDS – at that time a certain death sentence that also carried significant social stigma. Something inside me crumbled as I looked around to see how many people would have died because of me had this been a real scenario; I wasn’t the only one stunned to silence for the rest of the day. Her experiment created a vivid picture of how quickly diseases might transmit even when we’re careful.

Our actions have consequences. Even as I stay home to mitigate risk, I realize that I’m still not safe. That one patio meal might have been the place and time that I contracted COVID-19. Today’s trip to Costco might be the place and time that my husband is exposed. Though we may be careful to lessen the probabilities, no matter what we do, we can’t prevent all risk – nor would we want to. Risk remains a necessary part of life, and some risks are absolutely worth it. We have to live, after all.

Still, as this pandemic pause continues, I maintain my commitment to caution – to stay home as much as possible, to wear a mask, to avoid crowds, and to exercise good hygiene – because if I, if we, do become exposed, I don’t want to give it to you. I never want to be Patient Zero again.

Note: I cited several articles in this post and particularly recommend the article from National Geographic on why our minds don’t compute these staggering numbers and how we can remain sensitive.

Cover image by congerdesign from Pixabay