You might have seen—or retweeted—a list of the deadliest days in U.S. history that’s been making the rounds, racking up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares on Facebook and Twitter. It compares the number of fatalities in a single day from COVID-19 to other major disasters like 9/11 and the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900. According to CBS, which featured the list in an article, the blog Political Wire compiled the numbers before someone turned it into a sharing-friendly infographic. It’s hard to knock the intent: The coronavirus is a uniquely deadly catastrophe that’s unleashed an unthinkable amount of suffering over the past year, and if a nugget of chilling historical context will get more people to mask up, that’s good. But also: This list is so, so wrong.
For one thing, a list of the “deadliest days” in American history would include days with the most deaths, not the most deaths from one discrete event. On all of the days included, more people in the United States died than the numbers listed. According to Reuters, 2,861 COVID-19 deaths were indeed reported last Thursday. But that doesn’t account for the number of people who died from heart disease (last week’s daily average was 1,532 deaths), lung and tracheal cancer (last week’s daily average was about 560 deaths), or chronic kidney disease (last week’s daily average was about 290 deaths). Deaths from drug overdoses have also been reaching record highs this year, a trend that may have been worsened by the pandemic. (Obviously, more people died on the days of the Galveston hurricane, the Battle of Antietam, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor, too.)
By its own rules, the list is also incomplete. More than 3,000 people died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which isn’t mentioned, nor is the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane, which killed more than 3,300 people in Puerto Rico over the course of six to nine hours. While we’re at it, the population of the United States is much larger now. The U.S. was home to about one-tenth of the current population during the Battle of Antietam. Losing 3,600 people back then would be like losing 36,000 people now.
But yes, the general idea behind this list—and other attempts to communicate the horrors of the pandemic as a set of digestible facts—is worthwhile. It can be helpful to compare the number of deaths specifically from the coronavirus to other historical events in which there were huge losses of American life. More than 286,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 thus far. Compare that to the 116,000 Americans who died in World War I; 405,000 Americans who died in World War II; 37,000 Americans who died in the Korean War; and 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, the 1968 influenza A pandemic killed 100,000 Americans, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic killed 12,469 Americans.
For all the list’s faults, it’s still disseminating an important message about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic at the moment. Respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 spread more rapidly in cold weather, and health experts have been warning for months that this may well be the “darkest winter in modern history.” At least the kicker of the infographic imparts some unquestionable truth: “Wear a mask and avoid gatherings.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.