Over 104,000 Americans have been lost to COVID-19 since February.¹ Each one a tragedy. Each one causing untold, gut-wrenching, life-long pain. Each one creating a permanent void. Each one a father, mother, brother, sister, friend. Each one the loss of an entire world.
I’ve found myself reflecting on this enormous number and how we’ll teach future generations about what transpired. Years ago, I was compelled to help young Jews understand the enormity of the Holocaust. The Jews’ share, as most know, was 6,000,000.² How can adolescents comprehend the systematic annihilation of 6 million people? How do you convey, in a meaningful, powerful way, the sheer volume of such an unimaginable crime? One hundred football stadia, each packed with 60,000 people (when we could pack a stadium, that is)? One thousand arenas, each filled with 6,000 people? The entire Bay Area? Chicago? Indiana? Maryland? Missouri? The State of Israel?
None was effective. The number is simply too large. It was and, for many, remains unfathomable. Turns out, we don’t make emotional connections to large numbers.
What worked was simple, elegant even, and, in the moment, heartbreaking. I came upon it by chance. I asked the students to think of everyone they knew, everyone they loved, everyone who loved them, every one of their friends and family. Everyone in their life. Make a list with each person’s name. Leave no one out. Then imagine them suddenly gone.
It proved to be unforgettable. Making it immediately personal was the key. Small numbers work.
I’ve thought of that challenge often as we approached and surpassed the COVID-19 death toll of 100,000 last week. How can we convey the power of losing 100,000 people in four short months to a virus? How can we make 100,000 meaningful? Print 1,000 names on the front page of the New York Times? Think of losing every resident of South Bend, Indiana? San Mateo, California? Green Bay, Wisconsin?³ Think of everyone you know and everyone they know?
As I struggle with this, as I grapple with understanding the meaning of losing more than 100,000 souls so far to a virus we cannot control, can barely treat and cannot cure, I find myself back in that classroom so many years ago, remembering young teenagers talking about the lists of people they made. How those lists had real meaning for them. How, as we shared stories of many of their family and friends on their lists, others were reminded of people they had forgotten to include — and how they would add them with excitement during the discussion. And how some of the students would suddenly balk and refuse to put names of certain people on the list, some erasing names, fearing that they, too, might somehow suffer at the hands of the Nazis, though the Holocaust had occurred 40 years before. You know you’re making an impact when teenagers protest including the names of loved ones on a history class activity designed to convey the meaning of losing 6 million people long before they were born.
I think of this activity every time I see someone today without a facial covering. Every time I see a crowd of people, shoulder to shoulder, disregarding the need for physical distancing. Every time I hear — whether from Fox News evening hosts, Rush Limbaugh or from individual people — that wearing a mask is something concocted by the left, the Democrats, the Deep State, the fake media, Fox News haters or Never Trumpers. That taking precautions to protect oneself and others is somehow political. To you, I ask: Have you never lost anyone you loved to a senseless death? Do you have so little concern for others that you choose belligerence and anger rather than intelligence, common decency and compassion? Do you simply not care about anyone other than yourself? Who is on your list of loved ones? Which ones can you live without?
This is not the time to debate or question science. Wear a damn mask. Keep your distance from others. Wash your hands often. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And, if you must, pretend you care about the health and safety of others. People who wear masks and who maintain their distance are doing it, in part, for you. You owe them the same courtesy and respect. Anything less is selfish. And, if I dare say, anything less is clear evidence of ignorance.
As the coronavirus wreaks havoc, we continue to lose precious lives to another virus: racism. Last week many of us came as close as we’ve ever been to a public lynching. It was not a unique event. Police have been killing Black men and women for years. Some have been screaming to get our attention. Others have knelt. Had we paid more attention, taken it more seriously, taken it more personally, we might have avoided many meaningless, criminal deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Each one causing immeasurable grief and the loss of an entire world. Each one a tragedy. Each one further evidence of our collective inability to rise above racism and treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve. Let us finally, at long last, learn from this and take action to prevent it from never, ever occurring again.
If saving one life is akin to saving an entire world, let us do all we can to save as many worlds as possible. Because 104,000 + 1 deaths is beyond enough. Every voice is important. Find a way to add yours today.
¹ As of 9:00 p.m., ET, May 31; https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-us-maps-and-cases/
² The Nazis murdered a total of 12 million people, including gays, lesbians, Catholics, gypsies, political prisoners and just about anyone they didn’t like. When the war ended, the Allies liberating the death camps enough Zyklon B gas, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers, to kill another 30 million people.