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Uncomfortably numb

Every day, the grim tallies rise. After a certain point, do we fully register the lives behind the statistics?

At Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon, family members attended the funeral services of Bernard Seckler, 95, and his wife Eveyln Seckler, 94, on April 16. Under normal circumstances, this funeral service would have been attended by over 150 mourners. Instead, the ceremony was recorded.
At Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon, family members attended the funeral services of Bernard Seckler, 95, and his wife Eveyln Seckler, 94, on April 16. Under normal circumstances, this funeral service would have been attended by over 150 mourners. Instead, the ceremony was recorded.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The numbers are numbing.

Every day, the grim tallies rise. Not along a steady incline, which would be bad enough, but by jarring, exponential leaps unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

After a certain point, do most of us fully register the lives behind the statistics? Ted Monette, Barbara Levine, Fred Harris, Julio Quintanilla, Larry Rasky. Can the will to remember outlast the fear of the moment? Or do we detach, in the interests of self-preservation — or of something darker?

On Feb. 23, just 15 people had been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the United States. By March 23, that number had jumped to over 44,000. As of this writing, we are at well over 800,000. The death toll will soon surpass 50,000.

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We’ve spent lifetimes processing numbers like these when they describe catastrophes elsewhere — or failing to process them: Natural disasters in Indonesia or Iran; deadly outbreaks in West Africa or Haiti. It’s easier to detach when it happens far away, to sigh and turn the page, if we register these things at all. It is shameful but also human. And it just about guarantees we will do nothing to address the underlying causes or inhumanity.

This one is unfolding in our own neighborhoods. Massachusetts has almost 43,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus so far, according to figures released Wednesday afternoon. The death toll has reached 2182, with 221 residents here succumbing to the illness in the previous 24 hours. Think about that for a second, if you can stand it — that’s one person lost every six and a half minutes, opening a chasm of grief for those who loved and cared for them. Scott Jennings, David Coveney, Betty Demastrie, Frederick Schwab.

Still, numbers that were shocking a few weeks ago have quickly become less so. Remember how appalled we were when news first broke of those 11 deaths at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke? The death toll at that benighted facility passed 60 this week, with 50 of those who died testing positive for the virus. And COVID-19 has been raging at other long-term care facilities, which account for over half of all deaths from the virus statewide.

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How quickly the scale and metronomic relentlessness of loss distorts our perception. Three or four coronavirus deaths at a nursing home seem, in this context, not so bad — until we catch ourselves.

Sometimes, the enormity of it all does break through: The Globe published 16 pages of death notices on Sunday. And yet our attention quickly diverts again, from the individual tragedies to the graphs, which we stare at hoping to see them finally peak and begin their downward slope, portending our possible return to the world. But here we trick ourselves. The day after the peak will still be the second-deadliest day. And every day after that will pile up more losses.

There’s something primal in our detachment from such realities. But there is also something dangerous in it. If we become more inured to the deaths, we will have less urgency to fix the evils that underlie them: the inexcusable inequities in our health care system; the racial discrimination that leaves Black and brown Americans more vulnerable to the disease; the disregard for those who languish in our prisons and jails; the corruption of an economy that leaves millions of Americans one paycheck from disaster; and the appalling lack of resources in elder care.

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Since this crisis began, a growing army of the soulless has been trying to keep us detached. The president, in an attempt to deflect blame for his deadly incompetence, has tried to convince us that the loss of 100,000 Americans would qualify as some kind of victory on his part. A parade of morally vacant politicians and pundits are parroting that line, arguing that the loss of life behind the numbers pales in comparison to the economic harm of the shutdown. Life is worth so little to the small flocks of lemmings who crowd together at antishutdown rallies that they’re willing to gamble theirs — and their families’ — to show loyalty for politicians who don’t deserve it.

We listen to them at our peril. We grow used to the losses at our peril. The dead have names. Sergio Aguilar, Lois Brettschneider, Daniel Dewey, James Power, Michael McKinnell.

If we don’t keep sight of their humanity, we risk losing touch with our own.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.