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Another grim COVID milestone leaves us grieving, enraged, numb.

How do we process 800,000 deaths?

How can we deal with — or even think about — 800,000 deaths?

That number is almost as incomprehensible now as it was at the start of the pandemic, when it seemed utterly impossible. We have lost a staggering one in every 100 Americans over 65 to COVID. We are losing more than a thousand people each day, to a virus for which we have a safe and effective vaccine. Here in Massachusetts, where we’re now losing an average of 24 people a day, we are heading for 20,000 deaths — the entire population of Marblehead, Gardner, or Somerset, gone.


And yet, the higher the numbers climb, the more abstract they seem. We’ve moved beyond the numbness — surely an act of self-preservation — of last year. Now, it seems, we meet these deaths with something more like resignation. Body counts that surpass the population of sizable cities, the casualties of cataclysmic natural disasters, the death tolls of wars, still have the power to shock. But for most of us, the numbers blend into the background, a growing and immutable stain we’ve learned to stop seeing, even as the grief and exhaustion ripple out to touch us all in some way.

From where Alex Goldstein sits, it looks like a more deliberate evasion than that. “There just doesn’t seem to be as many people paying attention,” he said. “We are admitting defeat.”

Goldstein started the Twitter thread @FacesOfCOVID last year to give families a way to mourn those lost when proper memorials were impossible. The thread had 150,000 followers at its height, but it stopped growing, and started getting less engagement, last summer, when vaccines became almost universally available here, and deaths began to fall more heavily on those who still hadn’t gotten shots. Recent research has shown COVID’s lethality is an overwhelmingly red phenomenon, with death rates in counties that voted heavily for former president Donald Trump growing much faster than in counties that went for President Joe Biden. Those voters are more likely to consume a diet of misinformation on Fox News and other outlets where professional prevaricators underplay the scale of the loss and downplay the science, even as they themselves are fully vaccinated.


How should the rest of us feel about these deaths? Plenty of people seem to have decided those who died after refusing to get the vaccine are less deserving of sympathy. Goldstein has heard from some followers who say he shouldn’t include such people in the thread, which just surpassed 7,000 tributes. Others are more harsh. A few days ago, he posted an obituary for an Ohio firefighter who died on Dec. 10, the third in his department lost to COVID.

“Oh come on this isn’t that sad,” one person replied, though the man’s vaccination status wasn’t mentioned. “If he died in a fire it’d be sad. This [is] darwinism.”

Though he thinks it’s misdirected, Goldstein understands the anger. He is enraged that people are still refusing to be vaccinated. He lost his beloved father to prostate cancer in late July, just as the Delta wave crashed on us. Instead of a ceremony in a synagogue for hundreds, there was a small service in the cemetery for a few dozen.

“I was robbed too, and I was angry about it, but the most pronounced feeling was that the world was going on as normal while mine just fell apart,” he said.


The whole point of his project was to prevent those who have lost loved ones from feeling the same isolation. That grief is the same, whether the person who died was fully vaccinated, or unvaccinated out of fear or bad timing or misplaced priorities or poisonous politics.

“Every single person who is unvaccinated is making the pandemic worse,” he said. “We all have a right to be angry at those people, but there is a major cost to dehumanizing them.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to summon that generosity, particularly when the person who dies has themselves spread deadly lies. But we all love people who won’t get vaccinated. If we lost them, we’d be as shattered as the family of that firefighter in Ohio. Enraged, but shattered.

This moment is no less tragic because it was avoidable. If anything, it’s more so. Maybe that’s why so many of us can’t bear to look anymore.

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