Pandemic deaths have numbed our humanity and perception of risk

Jan 21, 2021

On one terrible day in December, Covid-19 deaths in the US for the first time exceeded the death toll from the World Trade Centre terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. To make people care we need to personalise the issue. 

Commentators noted that the 3,054 Covid fatalities in one 24-hour period also exceeded the deaths at Pearl Harbour in 1941, while the number who died was higher than the toll from the Johnstown flood in 1889; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Hurricane Maria in 2017; and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

But as Teresa Hanafin observed in the Boston Globe’s Fast Forward: “All of these events, and the terrible death tolls, shocked the country and haunted our consciences. It doesn’t feel that way today, as thousands of Americans die day after day.”

Jennifer Hesterman wrote in Crisis Response Journal: “Unmoved by escalating deaths and infections rates, the country brazenly resumed a normal tempo.”

Covid deaths in the US are now running at about 4,000 a day, with officially reported deaths across the globe more than two million.

So why have these shocking numbers seemingly had so little effect on so many? How can some people read that thousands of their fellow citizens are dying yet still believe the pandemic is a hoax; or that Covid is no worse than the flu; or that the death toll is exaggerated? And why does it matter?

In a world where science and expertise are under attack, communicators know how hard it is to fully convey the impact of events that rely on catastrophic statistics – be it a pandemic; an historic drought; a devastating famine; a genocidal war; or global warming.

While Covid-19 is certainly not the first event to demonstrate the numbing effect of big data, it reinforces the long-standing challenge of how to make society care and how to develop a true perspective of risk.

In his ground-breaking book Responding to Community Outrage, risk guru Peter Sandman cites smoking which, in the US alone, kills upwards of 350,000 people a year. “Imagine if they all died on November 13 in Chicago,” he wrote. “On November 14 we would outlaw smoking. We would not allow 350,000 people to die in one place at one time without taking immediate action. But instead, smokers die throughout the year, spread out across the country, in the privacy of their pain. Society finds these spread-out deaths more acceptable.”

The same can be seen with Covid-19. Thousands may die, but many pay attention only when it affects a Hollywood star, or a politician, or some other celebrity . . . or a friend or someone in the family.

Personalisation helps communicators explain a complex situation involving overwhelming numbers. As Mother Teresa said: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Charity promoters have long understood the concept of the “poster child” – you don’t show pictures of thousands starving in a squalid camp in the wake of a famine. Instead, you feature one painfully malnourished child who has a name.

Consider the Syrian civil war which, by 2015, had killed 250,000 and created millions of refugees. Yet it took just one heart-breaking photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean as his family tried to flee to Europe, to mobilise global awareness and empathy. It was reported, for example, that the Swedish Red Cross saw a 50-fold increase in donations in the week after the image went viral.

When it comes to Covid-19, the ever-increasing death toll distorts our perception of the unfathomable and allows people to take careless risks that endanger themselves and others in the name of “individual freedom”.

The communication challenge is increased by political opportunism, but it’s up to issue and crisis managers to help humanise risk and make society care again about what’s really important.

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