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As the U.S. COVID death toll nears a million, why that number is hard to fathom


Imagine an earthquake so big it destroys buildings and lives.

ERIC BOYNTON: A seismic event that is so large that it overwhelms the ability to take stock of what has just happened.

MARTIN: It is so strong that the seismograph, the very instrument used to process the scale of the earthquake, has been destroyed. This is how philosopher Eric Boynton describes our current moment in the pandemic. In this case, the earthquake is COVID-19. And when public health officials express disbelief about every new milestone, they are pointing to the broken seismograph.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I mean, it's absolutely staggering. It's unreal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's been stunning to me that we have had as much death as we've had.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I feel like my brain hasn't even caught up with some of the reality.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It just boggles the mind, as if...

MARTIN: Boynton has written extensively about mass death and how we mark great loss. He's the dean of Beloit College in Wisconsin. And he, himself, is trying to make sense of nearly a million lives lost.

BOYNTON: It's a number that washes over you, and then it dissipates. There's no container. There's no parameters that allow you to think about that number of deaths in a concrete, discernible way.

MARTIN: We first reached out to you in 2020 when the U.S. was approaching 100,000 deaths from COVID. And it felt awful then. And all the news stories reflected that, you know, all the obits of people who were lost and big headlines...


WOLF BLITZER: That is 100,000 men, women, children, mothers, fathers.

MARTIN: ...And everyone saying, I can't believe that we're here. And then it was the same thing.


ZOHREEN SHAH: Nearly 500,000 COVID deaths in America.

MARTIN: Every milestone, the reaction, the language was the same. I mean, are we not able to process the changing scale of loss in real time?

BOYNTON: I think that's probably true. I think, every time, we find ourselves surprised by such a number, such a threshold. I think this is, at bottom, a deeply human problem, this one that the pandemic has brought to the fore because it seems to be a long burn. Over time, it continues to exert its pressure. And yet, we find ways to live, more or less, in normal ways in the midst of it, even in this face of loss and absence that is all around us.

MARTIN: The World Health Organization says nearly 15 million people around the world have died from COVID directly or indirectly. So we're dealing with this 1 million loss here in the U.S. The larger number suggest that many more of us have been affected by grief associated with COVID, right? So if you, yourself, are sitting in your own individual grief, does that make you more or less capable to absorb the larger tragedy?

BOYNTON: Yeah. There's something about allowing yourself to open up to this grief and allowing it to do its work, to somehow hold lightly to the pieces so we don't dissipate altogether, but allow those fissures and cracks to let in certain kinds of light that otherwise would be closed off.

MARTIN: I guess I'm still struggling with the idea that we're supposed to endure our own grief of the loss of a mother or a partner or a child and also be very, very sad about everyone else who has died. That is really difficult.

BOYNTON: Yeah. And, yeah, that's something that needs to be taken stock of. I have experienced that in relationships with my own friends, for whom the grief is so deep and abiding that it's difficult to take stock. It might even be difficult to have a conversation we're having right now given the kind of imposition that this pandemic has had on their lives. And I think this is part of the space we find ourselves in right now, that something has been sprung into the air and it hasn't yet landed. And we haven't yet understood what's happened.

MARTIN: What do you do with misinformation in a situation like this? I mean, right now, some people falsely believe that the pandemic is exaggerated because of misinformation or political or social divides. How do you process collective grief when not everyone agrees on the scale?

BOYNTON: I would say, the desire to abide in misinformation, it may be a completely sane response. To believe in misinformation is a mechanism by which to take stock, by not taking stock of what's happening. What it is that you're engaging in is the flip side of the same coin of those who want to put flags out on the mall in D.C. Those two are intimately related as a response to that which you are having difficulty wrapping your heads around.

MARTIN: When you are faced with a loss as big as a million Americans have now died of COVID, can our hearts and minds keep expanding to meet the scale of loss? Or must we, for self-preservation, shut down at some point?

BOYNTON: Yes, you have to shut down at some point. All of this is too much. And, in fact, the pandemic is not too much, the world is too much. How is it that I'm living in community with other people who are experiencing this pandemic in ways that I don't fully comprehend, nor can I ever, that allows me to understand my own grief in different ways? Because I'm set within a community of those who are also suffering. And so it may not be a capacity of asking me, the individual, to empathize with someone else's suffering, but it's a recognition that my own suffering is that which links me to others. I may not even trust myself or imagine that I know what it is that you're experiencing. And far be it for me to impose upon you what it is I imagine. But it doesn't mean that I'm not constantly in relationship to that person because of the suffering that's all around us.

MARTIN: Eric Boynton, provost and dean of Beloit College in Wisconsin. Thank you so much for this conversation.

BOYNTON: Well, thank you, Rachel. I sure appreciate your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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