The End is Near

Pretty much every morning, for the past two years, the First Amendment champions at The New York Times have kept us up to date on the grim totals of the pandemic with all manner of charts and graphs and statistics. In the 21st century business of journalism, this is known as “data journalism:” the gathering, reporting and, ultimately, the analysis of huge tranches of computerized data.

The undertaking, especially to those of us who run the other way when the word “data” is thrown about — Is it dat-a or day-ta? Is it plural? Is this going to be on the quiz? — has to be humongously complicated. Just pulling all those numbers from so many different sources and gathering them into one place is a feat in itself. Making sure they’re accurate, and putting them in a form that the data-fearful can digest? Sounds like math to me. No thanks.

The whole prospect is something that couldn’t have been done, certainly to this degree or with this level of expertise, even five or 10 years ago. But thanks to data scientists, software engineers, intrepid journalists, and your friendly neighborhood internet, we have better ways of looking at bigger pictures than ever before.

The path of the pandemic is the prime-time example of this type of journalism:

The effort by The Times and many others has been a huge step for journalism and toward a more educated public. That’s good for all of us.

The problem is, sometimes you don’t want to look at the numbers. Sometimes, it’s just too much.

At the height of the pandemic — Happy Birthday, by the way! It’s 2 fricking years old this month — the numbers were just plain terrifying. (Most outlets rely on the same sources for coronavirus statistics, which are most often reported to local and state agencies, gathered and analyzed by healthcare entities attached to universities, then analyzed further by journalists.) In the interactive version of the NYT chart above, readers scroll along the timeline to see the sobering totals of the pandemic; new tests, new cases, new hospitalizations, new deaths.

There are more charts, too. Lots and lots of them. Force yourself to look, if you haven’t. (This version, from the Centers for Disease Control, is available to all.) It’s no wonder that many of us have chosen to spend the past two years hunkering down at home. It’s scary stuff, for everybody but home delivery services and Netflix.

Let’s recap the ups and down of the pandemic, shall we, as we cross into the third year of this bastard:

** There was the initial shock in March of 2020. They canceled, it seems, everything.
** Then we had the late Summer of ’20 lull, when we all hoped (but probably knew better) that the virus was on its way out.
** After that, we had the horrifying climb back in the Winter of ’20 and early ’21. In a stretch of early January that year, we had an average of more than a quarter-million new cases a day. Think of that: 250,000+ new cases a day. By then, we knew this was not ending soon.
** The Summer of ’21 wane came (about 11,000 new cases a day), which provided a wary respite, followed by the Omicron variant and a sickening winter spike in late ’21 and early ’22. That was capped by a stretch that peaked on January 10 — barely two months ago! — with more than 1.4 million new cases.
** Somewhere in there, some of us decided to hell with it and forged ahead, some of us withdrew even further into Netflix, and all of us grew way, way, way over it.

An increase in vaccinations, and some luck, have kept the death rate lower than it was in that first awful winter. Note, if you dare, that in one seven-day period in January ’21, more than 3,300 people a day in the U.S. were dying from the virus. Luckily, the Omicron variant simply hasn’t been as lethal as the Delta and previous versions.

While we’re in this recap mode, though, let’s not slide past that last number. More than 3,300 people a day were dying around that week in January ’21. A day! That’s more deaths — in one of those days — than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. In one day.

One day.

I hammer this home for a simple reason: We forget. We ignore. With all those numbers pounding us senseless, we lose perspective. We let our focus slip and fall into arguments about individual freedoms, mask mandates, government overreach, personal responsibility, vaccines, and all sorts of other tangential issues. The worst of us drum up falsehoods, partial truths and red herrings to try to redirect our attention from what’s important.

You know the stupid stuff; the numbers are overblown, it’s just the flu, China started it, we still have to live our lives.

Courtesy PBS

But, god, 3,300 deaths in a day should be hard to forget. It should be seared into our tired, stat-stuffed heads. Remember that number, for god’s sake. It’s important.

And so is this one: As of today, March 15, 2022 — roughly two years after most of us first found out that this coronavirus thing was real — 965,434 Americans have died of it. The total, almost assuredly, is higher than that.

But let’s say, conservatively, that almost a million Americans have died from coronavirus in the past two years. That’s not far from the total number of U.S. military deaths in every war that America has ever waged, from 1775 through the end of the war in Afghanistan (which, on the chart [>] is referred to as the Global War on Terror).

Pause. Consider the italics. Shake your head.

Try to grasp. Move on.

Most of us know people who have died from the virus. Or know someone who knows someone who has died. We all know someone who has been sickened. It’s very real. To everyone. Yet we argue, we bicker, we politicize, we forget, and we miss the big picture, despite all those numbers staring us in the face.

Thank god that this thing is almost over. Thank god the end is near.

Isn’t it?

If you’ve been paying attention to the trends, the numbers as we approach this spring look good. As of March 15, the last day on the chart below, we’re down to an average of 1,226 daily deaths.

The urge is to say “only” 1,226 deaths a day. But that’d be whiffing at the point. Fewer people are dying than was the case a few weeks ago. Yay?

Still, yes, it’s important. We’re headed in the right direction. Finally. Again.

No one, least of all the headline writer on this post, is willing to declare an end to the pandemic. In fact, most agree that, more likely, the chart lines will continue to go up and down for the foreseeable future. There’s a new variant now in Europe, BA.2, that has everyone nervous. Again. So let’s hold off on the bottle-popping.

But there is hope that this will be a smaller blip, and that the charts’ peaks will begin to settle into spots closer to its valleys, and the pandemic will, at some point, go out with a whimper, maybe becoming a flu-level annual challenge that we mostly can handle.

For two years, we’ve had to plan our lives around what the numbers have told us. It’s been the smart thing to do. When the virus has been particularly nasty, we’ve had to stop and readjust, sometimes painfully. Optimism has been hard to muster. That’s at least one of the reasons I haven’t posted here as much as I’d have liked to since March 2020. Like all of us, I don’t want to talk about this thing any more. It’s tiring. It’s depressing. It’s scary. All those numbers.

But with the arrival of spring, it may be time to allow a peek at normalcy. Mary Jo and I, who have been more careful than most these past two years, went out to the movies earlier this week. In a pitch-black, mostly empty theatre for a matinee show, I could see a glimpse of what used to be.

We ate at a restaurant — kind of, on the patio — last week, only the second meal Mary Jo has had in a restaurant or restaurant-adjacent since March 2020.

I’m back to playing basketball on Wednesday nights. My annual golf trip, a 2020 casualty of the pandemic (we did go, carefully, last year), is scheduled for next month.

Mary Jo and I are talking about vacation, somewhere, later this year.

I’m aware that this stepping-out might be the dumbest thing ever. We’ve been fooled before — Remember the Summer of ’20, when we all came up for air the first time? Remember pre-Omicron? — with often crushing results. And did I mention BA.2?

Still … hope, right? We can allow ourselves that, eh? To dream of a walk in the sun, a day at the ballpark, a laugh with a crowd, a greeting with a stranger not at arm’s length. Maybe we can forget arguments about mandates and vaccines, personal rights vs. civic responsibilities, and see the world for what we’d like it to be, rather than what it has been lately.

That might be a sucker’s view. I know. And, not to throw a wet blanket over the possible end to this mess, but we know that if the coronavirus took its over-deserved dive off the charts tomorrow, there’s plenty more in this world that can go wrong. Ukraine? World War III? Donald Trump announcing another run? Let’s not go over the list. Please.

We’ve been through so much, all of us. The arguing. The sickness. All that depressing data.

Hope, right? That’s OK, isn’t it? We can do that. That’s a real thing, too.

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