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COVID-19 Deaths Draw Comparisons To Other Tragic Death Tolls

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The enormous loss of life from COVID-19 has many of us searching for comparisons, times in history when the U.S. suffered and made it through. The devastating toll from covid has surged past 420,000 lives lost. That is more than all the Americans killed in World War II. But is that a valid comparison between two otherwise quite different events? Reporter Will Stone covers the coronavirus pandemic for NPR, and he weighed in on how his thinking has evolved in making that comparison.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: What I've learned is this can actually backfire. Listeners have written to NPR saying, yes, the pandemic is tragic, but how dare you compare it to soldiers who gave their lives on D-Day? One listener said this pandemic is not a mass death event like the Black Plague or a world war. He thinks of it more like lots of individual deaths from, say, car accidents or cancer.

MCCAMMON: So, Will, obviously, the goal of these kinds of comparisons is to help people put it in context. It's not to say that these are equivalent tragedies.

STONE: Yeah, but, sometimes, people hear it that way, especially those who served or their families. Dr. Howard Markel is a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

HOWARD MARKEL: It's been explained to me why war comparisons are offensive. I try not to make comparisons that I know contains within it a great deal of sentiment, feeling and pain.

STONE: And historians also point out these comparisons can be too simplistic.

MCCAMMON: I mean, in either case, we are talking about complex, chaotic situations with a lot of ripple effects. How straightforward is it to even capture the total death toll from either war or pandemic?

STONE: What I've learned is the full impact of a war is almost never captured in the official death records. I spoke to Sam Biagetti about this. He's a historian and the creator and host of the podcast Historiansplaining. He says, throughout history, disease and war go hand in hand, so why tease apart the number of people who died from bullets in World War I versus from the flu? Or in the American Revolution, which soldiers died in battle or from smallpox. And he says you need to be careful comparing COVID and war.

SAM BIAGETTI: People are dying in a different way under different circumstances. And there are different traumas. There's psychological trauma from the isolation and the anxiety. There's economic loss. You can't just try to sum up in a simple statistic, how big is this disaster versus that disaster?

STONE: And Biagetti also believes that as a society, we miss the true extent of war. Take suicide, for example. Between 2008 and 2017, more than 60,000 American veterans killed themselves. That's more than died officially during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's more than died in Vietnam.

MCCAMMON: So regardless, though, it is pretty common to talk about this pandemic or any big fight, really as a war. We say nurses are on the front line, or we are battling COVID. Is that kind of language a problem?

STONE: Some Americans whose relatives have died from COVID - they think America needs to frame the pandemic as a war. And I've heard that from veterans, too. One doctor caring for COVID patients even told me this is worse than the war he fought in, which was Iraq. And some historians see these comparisons as powerful, like Catherine Mas at Florida International University.

CATHERINE MAS: The scale of deaths that we're seeing on a daily basis, it's like 9/11 every day. It's like a Pearl Harbor every day. I think that that's important. That kind of captures the lethality of this virus, a kind of reference point that helps us understand as a society what it is we're going through and what we need to do to respond to it.

STONE: She thinks this is especially true in this pandemic. People are dying out of sight, and the country has not been united around it. So I think we'll hear more of this language going forward.

MCCAMMON: Will, thanks so much for discussing this with us.

STONE: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: That's Will Stone in Seattle, who's part of NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.