When 194,000 Deaths Doesn’t Sound Like So Many

From plague times to the coronavirus, the history of our flawed ability to process mass casualty events.

A "Bill of Mortality" next to the 100,000 COVID deaths New York Times front page.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Harvard and the New York Times.

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

At first, some believed the numbers of Americans dead of the coronavirus might stay in the five figures. Then, as the toll climbed into six, some grieved, some grew numb, some made comparisons to the numbers lost in wars, some threw up every possible defense to deny that these numbers mattered. How is it that so many deaths—194,000 in the U.S. as of this weekend’s official count—can feel so intangible, so hard for so many people to fathom?

Jacqueline Wernimont, a historian who writes about quantification and commemoration, has been watching this unfold and feeling no small sense of déjà vu. Wernimont’s book, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media, is a history of the way we came to quantify mass death—and how those numbers have, too often, blunted the pain of those deaths. We spoke recently about the blurry historical line between “bills of mortality” in plague times and COVID dashboards, and why numbers can make some people feel, and others stop feeling. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: In your book, you point to the bills of mortality, which publicized the numbers of dead during 17th century plague epidemics in London, as a first instance of media that people in the middle of an outbreak could use to keep up with death counts. What were the bills of mortality, for the unfamiliar? 

Jacqueline Wernimont: The bills were publications, but also internal government documents. They were often published as broadsides—longer pieces of paper that could be nailed to poles or put in taverns or, say, at the entrance of London Bridge. They were sold as a single sheet for about 2 pence in the market and were compiled by what was known as the “Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks,” an incorporated group that had a royal warrant to gather information about people who had died and to publish and sell it.

The practice of gathering deaths and birth information had been going on for a long time, back to the medieval period, but around this time the tradition shifted. The company had permission to build an industry around it—to sell anyone who could afford it the 2-pence information about mortality counts. Then they were also sending information to officials who would have pushed it up the chain eventually to the monarch and his or her advisers.

The idea was that there was valuable information to be gathered from counting, and not just the people who died in an epidemic, because these bills of mortality were also published during non-epidemic times. The British crown needed to understand what forces it could marshal or muster at any given point if it were to go to war. And London was exploding as a city. Britain was undertaking enormous expansion in its own territories in addition to colonial exploits; there was a sense that in order to have a well-regulated public sphere, you needed to understand its size, its scope.

The parish clerks subcontracted—to use today’s terms—with what were called “searching women.” These were wards of the parish—usually widowed or, for some other reason, in need of church help—and they were paid to go out in the streets and assess, during plague times, the number of deaths and the causes of death. They’d bring little slips of paper back to the parish clerks, who would sit at their desks, compile it in a form, and send it to their brothers who were printing it but also send it up the royal information circuit.

How did regular people who were reading these bills of mortality process these numbers? Did they see these numbers as infallible—as “true”? Did people know that the bills only counted the deaths of “freemen”—adult, white, male, Anglican subjects?

People definitely used the bills to inform their own movements. There wasn’t a theory of infection then the way we know it today, of course. Instead, people were thinking, “There’s a bad miasma in the air right now.” They were using the numbers to know which parish had a certain number of deaths, which had seen an increase in deaths. They were using that information to construct a sort of geography of death: Can I go here and get my food? Can I go see this tailor down in Whitehall because the cases are relatively low?

And then the wealthy of London were using it as a marker of whether they should flee. Oh, it’s over there in that quarter of the city, we don’t feel particularly at risk; oh no, it’s coming closer, retreat to the country. And people who were part of the parish but fled to the country were asked to send back money to the parish to support the people who couldn’t leave. They were supposed to send back money in proportion to the cases reported on the bills of mortality. That didn’t necessarily always happen, but that was another thing that was tied to the numbers.

We have a significant body of archival documents that attest to people feeling that the numbers could not possibly be accurate. It’s got to be an overcount, how could we possibly know, blah blah blah. The sense that the numbers might not be super reliable often got leveraged for political ends. People were arguing in the government, We need to open up the businesses; we need to open the theaters; we need to open the manufacturing spaces. People pointed at the searching women: These numbers are off because these women are drunk and unreliable. A definite sense of contestation.

What’s it been like for you, someone who studies the history of death counts, to see our current battle over death data unfold?

It’s been a really strange experience. When I was writing the book, I had to do a lot of work to make the 17th century feel relevant to the 21st century. And when I taught this kind of material in my classrooms, there used to be a big historical chasm—students had never experienced this kind of mass casualty event. That has changed entirely.

And then it’s been really surreal to see the same fights over the data play out right in real time. Like, Oh, we can’t possibly capture the data or Deaths are overcounted. The kinds of battles that I’ve seen play out in every one of these epidemics I’ve studied are playing out right now. In some respects, we seem to have learned nothing.

I think in other respects, obviously, we have a much better medical understanding of how the disease is communicated. And our level of numeracy is higher than it was in the 17th century—but I don’t want to overstate that, because numeracy in the U.S. is actually at the bottom of the international rankings among comparable countries. We’re really bad, as a country, at understanding and parsing numerical information.

Looking at it from a media history perspective, what modes of presentation of the death counts have seemed innovative to you during this pandemic?

I get the official CDC reports every week as they come out. Those have a very different visual and aesthetic feel than something like the Johns Hopkins site. I’ve been really interested to see that site change. It got started up by a faculty member and a grad student—and bless them for doing that, right? They were bootstrapping it rapidly, trying to get that information out. Then it became the thing that people looked at to make decisions. All of my college deans were saying, This is what we’re using to make our decision about whether we’re closing campus. And I thought, I’m glad you have a source of information, but are these the right sources of information?

What’s been frustrating to me is the hobbling of the CDC and their role in effective disease surveillance. Instead, everyone has a dashboard; newspapers are sending out their own teams to do data collection. I’m glad there are multiple efforts, but in a world where we’ve got non-experts collecting data, there are always going to be questions.

Part of what drives the use of certain data tools is their aesthetic appeal. I’ve been screencapping the Johns Hopkins site since before the outbreak was announced in the United States. It was initially centered only on China, and the size of the dots they used to show numbers of infections has had to radically shift. Really early on, they had these huge red dots on China and it looked very frightening, but it looked like COVID was nowhere else, right? But in fact, we had cases globally—we just didn’t know it yet. A dashboard can provide kind of a misinterpretation of what’s going on, on the ground—not out of any malicious intent, but simply out of a lack of complete information.

Then it shifted to a map that defaulted to being centered on the United States, and then you began to get dots at the level of counties, then things like recovery rates and death to mortality ratios got added. Additional information came online; the resource wasn’t stable. What the resource was doing at the beginning and what it’s doing now are very different things. And I don’t know that we have the numeracy or media literacy to understand those shifts as a country, and that worries me.

A lot of COVID denier-speak around death numbers is cloaked in what feels like false numeracy. People will knowingly say, Well, it’s not as bad as the number of people killed from car crashes.

Yes, I’ve seen dashboards that do a comparison with the 1918–19 flu—but using the full 24-month death count numbers for the flu! So of course the COVID deaths look small. Those numbers are incommensurate.

This is a rapidly evolving situation , and the information is going to be changing. We need to understand how it’s changing so that we can assess it. There’s not a gotcha moment here; these people are dead. They’re dead dead, not coming back.

In a thread you wrote in July about people’s reactions to death, you had a tweet I liked, about feelings: “Numbers are affective. … They make people feel things, and for some people, that’s resistance, while for others, it’s despair. When those feelings are intense, people’s need to function can kick in, resulting in desensitization.”

That really resonated with me, because I feel like a lot of people who are very upset about COVID deaths will say, “How can you look at projections that predict 220,000 dead before the election and not be completely outraged?” But you’re pointing out that people have different emotional responses to death counts.

As the numbers have gotten bigger, I’ve seen this happen—people’s threshold for dealing with trauma runs up against a kind of natural defense, to be able to keep functioning. Sometimes when people look at big death counts, like for the 1918–19 flu, 50 million confirmed deaths globally—that’s a really hard number to wrap your head around.

One of the things I argue in my book is that mortality counts take something so awful like seeing your hometown streets littered with dead bodies and they wrap it up in a number that feels a little more reassuring and carefully contained. At some point between “100,000” and “50 million,” I think people lose the ability to discriminate between the really big numbers, but they also start to shut down emotionally.

I’m interested in the metaphor of the “COVID dashboard,” in that sense. It seems to promise a sense of control: “You’re in the driver’s seat.”

Yes, for sure. This is part of what my creative work is about—finding ways to get people to have a different sense of mortality numbers, such that they can feel the impact of it, however awful it is. The artistic representations of death counts that take the numbers out of two dimensions and render them embodied in some way are the ones that seem to break through. In an academic context we would call the idea behind this “embodied cognition”—things you come to know in a different way, just from your body moving through space. That is what we mean when we talk about “muscle memory.”

Think about the Vietnam memorial—the scale and scope of that, the way if you stand in front of it to see an individual’s name, you can’t see the whole thing. Or the military graveyards where you just see row upon row of white crosses. The shoes activists put on the White House lawn to represent the kids killed by gun violence since Sandy Hook. At Holocaust memorials, how you move through buildings that are literally covered floor to ceiling with the names of people.

In this pandemic, a similar idea was behind the New York Times’ choice, when we’d passed 100,000 deaths, to run a front page full of names of people who’d died.

With one detail from each obituary, which I’ll never forget.

Yes. I’ve done an exhibit on the 1918–19 flu, where individuals were part of a braided cord, suspended from a ceiling in a geographic space. So you could walk through the dead, see how they were spatially clustered (like they were in the state of Arizona), but you could also sit and untangle a single cord—a life—from each 12-ply braid.

I’ve also done a lot of sonification—making statistics into sound. I did this with the 1918–19 flu and with the history of eugenic sterilization in the United States. There is something about making it into a musical score, where then it takes days to play; you can’t hear it all at once. That’s the thing about numbers—you can look at it on a screen, or on a page. You see it all at once. Maybe it makes you feel sick, maybe it doesn’t, but you can walk away. There’s something about having to sit with time-based or spatial media that can help convey the sense of scale very differently. It’s not nearly as easy to walk away from.