In early April 2020, when COVID-19 was beginning to seem inescapable, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a scholar of the way we make judgements, spoke to a New Yorker podcast.
"This is an exponential event," he said. "That is, we see things doubling every two days, every three days, every four days, and people – certainly including myself – don’t seem to be able to think straight about exponential growth.”
That the deaths of today represented infections of maybe four or five weeks ago, even as the infection rate was whizzing skywards on an exponential trajectory, was “beyond intuitive human comprehension. And that’s interesting: that we’re in a situation that we’re simply not equipped to understand.”
At that time, the confirmed global death toll from COVID-19 stood at 80,000. This month, the official body-count stands at 5 million – a number understood to represent a major underestimate. Some credible analyses peg SARS-CoV-2 fatalities at closer to 17 million. This number places it firmly on the list of the deadliest pandemics in history, even though it has run for a far shorter time than others on the list.
Is it simpler to grasp a number of such an extraordinary scale than the dynamic swing of exponential growth? Perhaps. Still, at such great heights, our tallied casualties tend to take on the anaesthetic gloss of statistical abstraction. Easier, maybe, to comprehend the pandemic’s losses at smaller scale, in images: refrigerated mortuary spill-over trucks in New York, parking lots full of funeral pyres in India’s national capital region.
Another way of drawing significance from the grim statistic is by comparison. COVID-19 already ranks among the world’s deadliest epidemics, each of which can claim credit for epochal – not just generational – shifts. Granted, absolute figures tell you only so much: COVID-19 arrived on a far more populous planet than the one which was devastated by the Black Death. But it remains clear that such a massive loss of life is bound to change the world.