Many Deaths, No Cameras

From The Washington Post:

Death is now everywhere and yet nowhere in America. We track its progress in daily bar graphs. We note its latest victims among celebrities and acquaintances. Yet, in many parts of America, we carry on — debating holiday plans, the necessity of mask mandates, how seriously to take the virus, whether it’s all a hoax.

In the face of one of the biggest mass casualty events in American history, we are growing increasingly numb to death, experts say — numb to the crisis and tragedy it represents and to the action it requires in response.

Something happens in the brain when fatalities reach such high numbers, say psychologists who have studied genocides and mass disasters. The casualties become like a mountain of corpses that has grown so large it becomes difficult to focus on the individual bodies.

With the coronavirus in particular, experts say, the deaths have been hidden from sight even from friends and family — the human cost sequestered in hospitals and nursing homes.

“Sometimes I think, if only others could see what we see every day,” said Joan Schaum, a hospice nurse who has spent the past year caring for the dying in Lancaster, Pa.

“Other times,” she said, “I think, no one should have to see the amount of death and suffering going on right now. It changes you. It stays with you.”

In 1994, hundreds of thousands in Rwanda were murdered in the space of weeks by soldiers and militias from a rival ethnic group. In response, the United States and much of the world largely shrugged. President Bill Clinton later called his administration’s failure to act one of his great regrets.

Puzzled by that apathy, a psychologist named Paul Slovic began conducting experiments to better understand people’s reaction to mass suffering and death. What he found was troubling.

In one study, his researchers showed people a picture of a . . . girl dying of starvation and asked for donations to help her. He showed another group two starving children, then even larger sets of children. Slovic found people’s distress didn’t grow with the number of children in danger, but often shrank.

“In fact, the more who die, sometimes the less we care,” Slovic said in an interview. In greater numbers, death becomes impersonal, and people feel increasingly hopeless that their actions can have any effect.

“Statistics are human beings with tears dried off,” Slovic said. “And that’s dangerous because we need tears to motivate us.”

With the coronavirus — the death toll substantially exceeding 300,000 in the United States [100 times as many as died on 9/11] — many of our strongest impulses are working against us, experts say.

“Think about the disasters that have captured our national attention. … A hurricane like Katrina hits. News crews show the devastation, and people open their wallets,” said Lori Peek, who directs the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But this pandemic isn’t a camera-ready event like that.”

Instead of a single discrete event — like the twin towers collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001 — the pandemic has unfolded as an invisible, slow-creeping, chronic hazard. Over time, our brains gradually tune out the danger.

Peek likened the effect to heat waves, which kill more people in America than all other natural disasters combined. “But you never hear that much about heat waves because it’s gradual. You don’t see people trapped on rooftops like Katrina. You don’t have homes going up in flames like in wildfires.”

Without visual, physical manifestations of deaths, the alarm bells in our heads fail to ring, experts said. Because we don’t see the deaths, we fail to see their connection to us — including our role in preventing their growing numbers.

This is what death in the pandemic looks like up close: Patients often grow ashen as their body struggles for nutrients. Their skin becomes mottled with splotches of reddish purple as their heart pumps less and less blood to parts of the body that need it.

Often, the room is eerily empty, with nurses and doctors trying to minimize risk of infection. The only constant is the low, steady hum of an oxygen compressor piping air to the patient’s nostrils.

Amid the silent void, the patients’ dying breaths become magnified.

“The hardest thing about it is how alone they are in the end,” said Schaum, a nurse with Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster, Pa. . . .

“You do everything you can to make sure they don’t feel alone,” she said. “But it’s hard to convey just how isolated it is”. . . .

When families are unable to be there, Laura Carey, a social worker for Hospice & Community Care, sometimes sits with covid-19 patients during their last moments. . . .

She sits quietly beside them as their breath slows and becomes increasingly shallow and irregular, until it stops.

“There’s something so incredibly sacred and powerful about that moment,” Carey said. “If only others could experience it, maybe things would be different.”