Comparing Covid’s death tolls to previous wars is difficult


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Counting the dead is one of the first, gloomy steps to anticipate an event of enormous tragedy, be it war, natural disaster or pandemic.

This dark but necessary arithmetic has become all too routine during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The total US death toll has now exceeded 450,000.

Every death is unique, a devastating loss that runs through a family, a network, a community. Overall, however, the national death toll can feel abstract, and its repetition on the news can get numbing. Journalists, commentators and officials are looking for new ways to convey the deadliness of this pathogen and the importance of its rising death toll.

Many have turned to history and cited Pearl Harbor (2,403 deaths) or the 9/11 attacks (at least 2,977 deaths) as a way to offer perspective as the US daily death toll hit these levels. (Currently more than 3,000 Americans die from Covid every day.)

January 21, 2021 provided another opportunity for historical comparison: on that day, the death toll in the United States reached and exceeded the 405,399 Americans who died in World War II.

For many, trying to compare the two fatalities – or even note their brief connection – is wrong or offensive. It is certainly a morally demanding exercise. The actual emotional and social impact of either event can never be quantified, but many media outlets have still mentioned them.

This begs the question: are we as a society too fast to reach these historical comparisons? Should a politically driven world war and a biologically driven pandemic that are more than seven decades apart even be placed side by side?

“This is an apple-to-orange comparison,” wrote NPR listener Kris Petron in December in response to a story that used the comparison. “It is extremely disrespectful to our nation’s veterans who are giving their lives blank checks to defend our constitution.”

The medical historian Dr. Howard Markel convinced over time not to draw parallels between the death toll from the war and a pandemic.

“I try not to make comparisons to an event or group that I know contains a lot of emotion, feeling, and pain,” said Markel, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics “That invaded America and the fears they unleashed. “

The notion that the fight against death has a unique meaning or value is ingrained in human culture. Societies tend to value those who died for a cause on a battlefield.

But in this pandemic, the frail elderly – many of whom live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities – have died in large numbers.

“To the observing world, this is not the same as the death of a young soldier in his twenties, say on the front lines of a war,” said Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to in the presence. “

“But I don’t think we have the right to weigh life and say which is more important,” added Snowden.

Unlike covid-19, the 1918-19 global influenza pandemic killed many people in their twenties and thirties – yet, as Snowden noted, there wasn’t much collective grief for these young adults even though they died in their prime.

“People were because of the [first world] Was that even the terrible numbers that came with “Spanish” influenza had lost their ability to horrify the way one might expect, “he said.

What exactly are we comparing when we compare death charges?

The attempt to compare the death toll of the pandemic with that of a war appears to the historian Samuel Biagetti as a particularly “modern” exercise.

“For the vast majority of human history, people have understood that war and disease go hand in hand and are inextricably linked,” said Biagetti, who is the creator and host of the Historiansplaining podcast.

The pandemic flu 100 years ago was fueled by World War I conditions and ultimately killed more people than the war, with an estimated 50 million flu deaths worldwide and over 700,000 flu deaths in the US

Biagetti pointed out that World War II was the first conflict in American history that killed more fighters than disease. This pattern has continued since then, reflecting medical advances like vaccines and antibiotics.

The carnage of war does not end just because peace is declared. The effects of the war continue long after formal hostilities have ceased and include disability and disfigurement, emotional trauma, addiction, homelessness, and suicide.

One example is the ongoing suicide crisis among US veterans. From 2005 to 2017, 78,875 veterans died from suicide – more than 58,220 soldiers were killed in Vietnam.

For all of these reasons, Biagetti said he was concerned about comparing the current pandemic to a war, if only to count the dead: “You can’t just try to sum up in a simple statistic how big this disaster is By comparison, disaster is as if they could even be summed up in a simple number. “

Yet the language of warfare permeates so much of the national discourse on the pandemic.

Nurses work on the “front lines”. Coronavirus is described as an invisible “enemy”. The country is “fighting” the virus. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden said the pandemic “claimed as many lives in one year as America lost throughout World War II.”

The ‘war’ metaphor is a call to action, an acknowledgment of the victim

Some Americans whose relatives died of Covid applaud the rhetoric of the war and believe that comparing the pandemic to previous wars is essential.

“The extent of it is That of war is just a different kind of war and it’s not one that we absolutely need to learn in our history books, ”said Kristen Urquiza, who co-founded the Marked By COVID advocacy group after her father died of the disease that summer.

Urquiza said the country has been fighting together to respond to the coronavirus because Americans have little understanding of what it takes to overcome a pandemic.

“In a way, it’s more dangerous [than war] because we are not culturally prepared for it. “

There are also veterans who find the war analogies appropriate and even helpful. Dr. Cleavon Gilman, a Yuma, Ariz., Ambulance doctor has treated covid patients since the outbreak began and easily compares the pandemic to a war.

It’s very hard to communicate the severity of this pandemic if you are not in a hospital where this war is being waged, ”said Gilman, who served as a naval combat medic in Iraq in 2004.

World War II was the deadliest war in world history, but not in American history: this distinction is part of the Civil War. The death toll has traditionally been estimated at around 618,000, but new research shows that 750,000 may be more accurate.

But World War II plays a big role in America’s cultural memory as the “good war” that united the country against a clear enemy, said Catherine Mas, a professor at Florida International University who studies the history of medicine, race and religion.

In retrospect, the American response to World War II contrasts sharply with the current political divisions over the coronavirus and the fragmented and uneven national response.

Despite the differences, Mas said the comparisons can still be a powerful tool as the country tries to anticipate a crisis that has been out of sight for many Americans. People die at bedside in hospitals with no family members and only health care professionals are there to testify.

The reason we want to compare Covid-19 deaths to something like World War II is not just because the numbers are there, but that this is a major break in society, “she said.

“This mass death will cause trauma: how will we deal with it? How have we dealt with this in the past? I think it’s part of our human condition to look for reference points. “

This story was produced in collaboration with NPR and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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