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How to Put 170,000 COVID Deaths in Perspective

One death is a tragedy; 170,000 deaths is a statistic.
August 20, 2020
Featured Image
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

What does it mean that 170,000 Americans have died—so far—from COVID-19?

You may recall that early on in the pandemic, there was a great deal of crowing from the pro-Trump pandemic-skeptical right. They would say things like, “Only 12 people died today in the entire country! Why are we getting so worked up over this media hoax!”

At some point those voices grew silent.

Today we have the opposite problem: The number of deaths is so large that it has become an abstract statistic. It’s hard to get your mind around what 170,000 dead Americans really means.

How are we supposed to understand the scale?

Consider breast cancer. We all have a mother, a wife, a sister, who has battled breast cancer. The country wears pink every October because of it. In recent years, a little more than 40,000 women have died of breast cancer every year.

COVID-19 killed that many people in about six weeks.

When you tell people that this epidemic is the worst since the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed about 675,000 in America, their eyes glaze over, the importance gets lost.

But tell people that close to 85,000 Americans die from diabetes every year.

And then show them that COVID-19 has killed twice that many people in less than six months.

You can help people understand the true scope of COVID by putting it in the personal context of the health problems we all see in our families’ lives. For instance, prostate cancer kills 33,000 men every year.

Which means that COVID has already killed five times as many people this year as prostate cancer will.

Or, if you prefer to look at it another way: The coronavirus has already killed more people in 2020 than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes combined.


It’s unclear why the Democratic party has not used this frame to explain the scale of the pandemic’s destruction to voters. To tell voters that cancer—all cancers, put together—will kill about 600,000 Americans each year. Then show them that by November, the death toll will be almost certainly near 200,000. And by year’s end, 300,000 deaths is clearly possible.

Meaning that even though COVID didn’t really break out in America until late March, it would have killed half as many people as the disease most people fear above all others.

Instead, Democrats seem intent on comparing COVID to . . . Ebola.

When Kamala Harris gave her first speech last week as Joe Biden’s running mate, she said,

Six years ago, in fact, we had a different health crisis. It was called Ebola, and we all remember that pandemic. But you know what happened then? Barack Obama and Joe Biden did their job. Only two people in the United States died—two. That is what’s called leadership. But compare that to the moment we find ourselves in now. When other countries are following the science, Trump pushed miracle cures he saw on Fox News.

This is political malpractice. Mentioning that two people died six years ago from an outbreak which is only dimly remembered isn’t going to help people understand what’s going on. Instead, Harris could have mentioned that COVID-19 killed more Americans this year than lung cancer will (135,000 annually) or Alzheimer’s disease (122,000 annually).

And remember: The key point is that unlike all of these other causes of death, COVID is contagious. Which is why we can’t just accept these deaths—“it is what it is”—and move on, even if we wanted to. The coronavirus has to be actively fought. Or else it will continue to spread and expand its grim reach even further.

Which is what makes it different—and more dangerous, by far—than cancer or diabetes or heart disease, even.

One suspects that framing the fight against COVID and the failures of the Trump administration in dealing with COVID in terms that people can relate to would be quite helpful, as an electoral matter, to Democrats’ prospects. After all, many of the battleground states have large populations of voters over the age of 65: Florida (ranked #2 among states for that population), Pennsylvania (#8), Arizona (#12), Michigan (#14), Iowa (tied for #17), Ohio (also ties for #17), and Wisconsin ( #19) all have older populations above the national average.

Democrats ought to tell people what the fact of 170,000 deaths really means in ways that they can feel.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.