When 194,000 Deaths Doesn’t Sound Like So ManyHistorians in the News
tags: public health, plague, pandemics, COVID-19
This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.
At first, some believed the numbers of Americans dead of the coronavirus might stay in the five figures. Then, as the toll climbed into six, some grieved, some grew numb, some made comparisons to the numbers lost in wars; some threw up every possible defense to deny that these numbers mattered. How is it that so many deaths—194,000 in the U.S. as of this weekend’s official count—can feel so intangible, so hard for so many people to fathom?
Jacqueline Wernimont, a historian who writes about quantification and commemoration, has been watching this unfold, and feeling no small sense of déjà vu. Wernimont’s book, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media, is a history of the way we came to quantify mass death—and how those numbers have, too often, blunted the pain of those deaths. We spoke recently about the blurry historical line between “Bills of Mortality” in plague times and COVID dashboards, and why numbers can make some people feel—and others stop feeling. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What’s it been like for you, who studies the history of death counts, to see our current battle over death data unfold?
It’s been a really strange experience. When I was writing the book, I had to do a lot of work to make the 17th century feel relevant to the 21st century. And when I taught this kind of material in my classrooms, there used to be a big historical chasm—students had never experienced this kind of mass casualty event. That has changed entirely.
And then, it’s been really surreal to see the same fights over the data play out right in real time. Like Oh, we can’t possibly capture the data, or Deaths are overcounted. The kinds of battles that I’ve seen play out in every one of these epidemics I’ve studied, are playing out right now. In some respects, we seem to have learned nothing.
I think in other respects, obviously, we have a much better medical understanding of how the disease is communicated. And our level of numeracy is higher than it was in the 17th century—but I don’t want to overstate that, because numeracy in the U.S. is actually at the bottom of the international rankings, among comparable countries. We’re really bad, as a country, at understanding and parsing numerical information.
Looking at it from a media history perspective, what modes of presentation of the death counts have seemed innovative to you during this pandemic?
I get the official CDC reports every week as they come out. Those have a very different visual and aesthetic feel than something like the Johns Hopkins site. I’ve been really interested to see that site change. It got started up by a faculty member and a grad student—and bless them for doing that, right? They were bootstrapping it rapidly, trying to get that information out. Then it became the thing that people looked at to make decisions. All of my college deans were saying This is what we’re using to make our decision about whether we’re closing campus. And I thought, I’m glad you have a source of information, but are these the right sources of information?
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