Speed Reads

Coping with COVID

The U.S. COVID-19 toll equals a death every 1.5 minutes, 8 plane crashes a day, or 67 9/11 attacks

After the U.S. hit 200,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called it "a staggering number that’s hard to wrap your head around," adding that "behind every COVID-19 death is a family and community that will never again be the same. There's a devastating human toll to this pandemic — and we can't forget that."

But "our biology is working against us" when it comes to computing this new grim death toll, Sarah Elizabeth Richards reports at National Geographic. "Researchers say our brains aren't wired to make sense of big numbers."

Maybe it helps to break it down into smaller pieces. "The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days," The Associated Press notes. "It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama," being wiped out in seven months. "The tally means a U.S. death has happened every 1.5 minutes, on average, since the first official fatality in late February," Richards adds. "It means we have lost 1,450 plane loads full of people."

"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," David Kessler, a Los Angeles-based grief specialist, tells National Geographic. "Can you even imagine that?"

Lots of people are finding it hard. That's partly because of everything else that's going on: Massive wildfires, hurricanes, civil unrest, a divisive election, and coping with life in a pandemic. "If you're already stressed out, the 200,000 statistic becomes just another thing," Princeton cognitive psychologist Elke Weber tells National Geographic. "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."

People can also become less compassionate as an amorphous tragedy grows too big to be personal, adds Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. "Our feelings are very strong for one person in danger, but they don't scale up very well." To keep from getting numb, try to focus on the loss of individual people, not the politics or the fight over face masks, Kessler advises. "We're not talking about Juan's mother or Susan's brother." Read more at National Geographic.

Editor's note: A previous headline of this article misstated the number of COVID-19 deaths per minute. It has been corrected. We regret the error.