In perhaps the most remarkable feat ever accomplished in medicine, a public/private partnership built on the world’s most sophisticated research protocols, medical science and laboratory technology, has developed–in just eleven months–two vaccines with more than 90% efficacy that have begun to reach a global population decimated by the current coronavirus pandemic.
It is just about one year since Covid-19 first appeared in humans in Wuhan, China. As of this writing, there are more than 74 million cases worldwide with more than one in five in the US. And of the 1.6 million deaths across the globe, 310, 000 have been in the US where we currently average close to 3,000 deaths per day—more deaths than occurred on 9/11 or in the attack on Pearl Harbor that inaugurated the US involvement in World War II. The human cost is incalculable. The suffering, loss of life and social devastation this virus has caused cannot be accurately measured in numbers alone and so many statistics are reported each day that it is hard to keep the ever-increasing numbers straight.
The steady drumbeat of daily headlines that track these totals has a cumulative effect on the listener. While it is important to report these numbers so that we can statistically grasp the scope of the crisis, when we hear such extraordinarily large numbers, we lose a recognizable reference point. Then, the numbers themselves tend to diminish their impact and dehumanize those who have been stricken.
These numbers are horrific, especially in the US where statistics dwarf, by almost any measure, the totals from every other nation on earth. But there is another often overlooked element to the pandemic that carries a less visible toll—those who suffer non-Covid related health crises whose healing is delayed, jeopardized or otherwise compromised because of preoccupation with the coronavirus.
This became real in a very personal way this past week. Someone close to our family was stricken recently with a heart attack and, upon diagnosis, needed emergency open heart surgery. While her situation was totally unrelated to the virus, Covid protocols created barriers for emergency care, kept her isolated from family and delayed treatment adding significant stress to an already fraught situation. These same—and necessary—protocols also created difficulties in establishing a consistent healing regimen.
Though still in intensive care, she seems to be improving. But her condition remains fragile and her circumstances beg a much larger question. How many millions more have had a similar, life-threatening situation—not a victim of the virus per se, but of the virus’s ripple effect on a health care system stretched to the breaking point? She likely won’t even be tallied in the numbers of Covid victims, yet her wellbeing has been dramatically impacted by the virus.
This is just a singular example of how numbers that numb us are wholly inadequate in communicating the actual magnitude of the crisis we face—and that, thank God, the vaccines may finally shine a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. As we consider those who have been stricken by this virus, it is essential that we attach names, faces and identities to the numbers that are too often shared as if they were commodities. If we do not personalize these statistics, we risk losing our own humanity amidst the numbing numbers that confront us each day.