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Special: Are a million deaths from Covid just a statistic?

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How casually we tend to dismiss the pandemic in numbers. Deflection is the ‘new normal’, when in reality we are grappling with a freakishly abnormal crisis. We have been under siege for most of the year, captive and held hostage by a pathogen. Gone is the anger and frustration as we learn to coexist with the dangerous virus.

I am inclined to term it the Coronavirus Syndrome, like the Stockholm Syndrome, when the hapless captive falls in love with the captor. Fear has given way to acceptance, and the hope that a vaccine will speed up what is known as herd immunity with at least 60 per cent of the population developing antibodies against the coronavirus.

US President Donald Trump’s recent slip of the tongue at an event when he said ‘herd mentality’ makes sense as we join the new ‘normal chorus’. I wonder if we take our current state of despair seriously or is it just me being hyper emotional and paranoid with the coronavirus hounding our existence?
With over a million deaths, it seems like the end of days for many people. Grief has become a stray emotion that they Zoom in when the call comes. Tech has all the answers, we are told, even to help us mourn. The camera never lies.

For others, this normalising of a bleak situation has mutated into a habit with their morning cuppa. Life must go on. Pandemic habits are hard to kick. A friend from school, a doctor, waxed eloquent on Optimism Bias and sent me an article the other day. The ‘key’ to Optimism Bias is this: “We disregard the reality of an overall situation because we think we are excluded from the potential negative effects.”

With over a million lives felled by the virus, I don’t know where I stand or what to think. Perhaps we choose not to reflect on the brutal reality. The death count and rising number of cases have lost their humanity. One has to cope. I can’t but help applaud the undefatigable human spirit that refuses to surrender and yield to the coronavirus that has swept through nations great and small.

The biggest health, social, and economic disruption in modern history has honed our survival skills as we keep our distance from each other in virtual comfort zones. The pandemic is death personified, yet we look the other way and make light of our despair. Perhaps we have learnt to mask our hurt and our despair well.

A friend I was talking to the other day said she was in a daze after staying indoors for most of the year. Another friend from college, who is battling cancer, is waiting for some ‘bright days’ – some light that will lift the encircling gloom. Change and decay are all around us. My mom in India wonders when she’ll get to meet my family, who have not stepped out of our apartment since March 24. “Why risk it when you can afford to stay indoors?” the missus reasons in all severity. I stay away from an argument.

The million lives lost to Covid-19 have become just a number, a set of data – deaths, active cases, and recoveries. “Their lives will not be in vain,” screamed a foolish headline that was lost on me the moment I set my eyes on it. Which reminded me of a quote purportedly by Josef Stalin. “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” the former Soviet Union leader is believed to have said. Fake news from another era when the Gulag in Siberia and the Holocaust were still fresh on people’s minds. Stalin was seen as a despot, a dictator in the West who unleashed a strain of authoritarianism in the former USSR. The Iron Curtain went up and good sense was thrown out the window back in the day.

Historians are divided on whether Stalin indeed said this. Some say the former Soviet leader was quoting from a 1932 essay by Kurt Tucholsky, a German journalist and satirist. In the essay, a fictional French diplomat is speaking on the horrors of conflict and violence: “The war? I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!”
Back to those figures that hound me. World War I claimed 20 million lives when it ended in 1918; World War II killed 85 million between 1939 and 1945. It is estimated that 50 million people died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Numbo-jumbo if you will in the new abnormal. Are a million deaths from this pandemic just a statistic or has death lost its sting?

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