The first confirmed COVID-19 death on US soil occurred on March 1, 2020. four p.m. EDT on April 2, 2020, the United States’ cumulative coronavirus death toll hit 5,808. Four days later, that number crossed the 10,000 line. There’s a long history behind the saying that while any one death is a tragedy many deaths —a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million— become statistics, but it certainly applies now: the American pandemic has entered its statistical phase.
This much is known about the tragic start to America’s epidemic. The first person to die was a man in his fifties, who had been hosptialized in King County, Washington. His name was not been released at the time, but it’s possible to reconstruct a part of his story: he was someone in the middle of a life who, only a week or two before its end, had no reason to think he faced his last days on earth. That’s a story we can tell ourselves; a loss we can recognize; a human being, however anonymous, we can mourn.
That one death is a marker in more than just timing. Health officials noted one key fact about that particular case. The dead man had no connection to the original coronavirus outbreak in China. He caught his disease here, from someone else in the United States who was already infected, in what is called “community transmission.” President Trump reacted to the news of his death within hours—by imposing travel restrictions on Iran. That gesture was preceded by reckless inattention, to be followed by a disastrous series of performative decisions by the Trump administration that has produced the current best-case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 Americans dead by summer.
It’s virtually impossible to grasp the losses implicit in such large numbers. When quantities break the bounds of ordinary experience they begin to disappear from view. That’s the challenge: to see into what’s happening now, to extract from mere numbers both memory and meaning.
Here’s one way to do so: on September 11, 2001 2,996 people were killed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC. As I write this on April 3, the US has already suffered almost two 9/11s.
Another: between 1956, when the first American died in the conflict, and 2006, when the last American fatality attributed to the war was recorded—half a century–58,220 members of the US armed services died in the Vietnam War. COVID-19 has climbed to ten percent of that casualty count in a single month.
Looking forward, if the most optimistic current projections hold, coronavirus will bring between thirty and seventy 9/11s to the United States, or two to six Vietnams. At those heights, the sheer scale of the misery again turns particular memories (where I was when the towers fell, what it felt like to run my fingers along the wall) into abstractions.
And beyond such numbers, should the best case scenarios fail to pan out, we’ll find ourselves in territory at the limits of national mourning. It took 405,000 American lives to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And should the US epidemic wholly overwhelms the still-patchwork effort to contain it, the only remaining national memory to measure our tragedy against will be America’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, in which an estimated 750,000 Americans lost their lives.
Back on the first of March, just one man lay dying of this awkwardly named new disease. Those who knew him could mourn him in his human singularity. Glimpsed now, through the lens of almost six thousand more dead, he is the unknown soldier in this viral campaign.
More than three 9/11s.
Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562