‘Suffering is always personal’

Thought for the week: Joseph Jones counts the cost

‘Compiling deaths as statistics separates us from tragedy.’ | Photo: nito100 / iStock.com.

This crisis has turned us all into statisticians. To watch the government briefings, or to read any news report on the pandemic, is to be subject to a profusion of figures and graphs. Numbers of tests. Numbers of contracted cases. Numbers of ventilators, hospital beds or personal protective equipment. Amounts offered to furloughed employees or struggling businesses. Contagion ratios compared country by country. Among them all is the starkest, saddest figure there is: the number of people who have died.

Compiling deaths as statistics is not new, of course. We’re familiar with it from other catastrophic events – earthquakes, fires and floods, and famines and wars that we conspire ourselves to set loose. But the process always separates us from the tragedy under consideration. This is why charity campaigns often take us back to a personal story or face – one child dying of hunger touches us in a way that a bald number does not, even when we can see the manipulations involved. It’s not that we’re immune to what the figures tell us, it’s just that it’s impossible to grasp suffering in such gross terms. Suffering is always personal.

This digitising of death can sometimes be a tactic. Joseph Stalin is said to have claimed that when one person died it was a tragedy, but when millions did it was ‘only statistics’. I’m not suggesting that this is the case at present. We may have questions about politicians prioritising international finance over individual fitness – just as we may when people choose this moment to advocate for different kinds of future – but I don’t believe there’s a global conspiracy to distract us. It’s just that exercising empathy on this scale is distressing, particularly when things remain uncertain.

I believe, though, that we must try.

Already, almost 300,000 people have died after contracting coronavirus. This figure represents people taken too soon from family and friends. People mourned in isolation, after funerals that have been too small. Gaps where once there was passion and nerve and feeling and all the things that make a life. Hugs not given; messages unsent; questions unasked. Birthday cakes unbaked.

It is important – necessary, even – to think about what we can learn from the pandemic. To think about what it says about our world, and how we might like it to be different. But for me our first and greatest task is to rehumanise this cold crisis. To steal it back from the charts and graphs and the numbers on a page. Where the spirit of Herod is still alive it is sometimes secreted away on an Excel spreadsheet. We need to make it personal.

There’s a sentence in ‘Our Peace Testimony’ that, to me, drives all of it: ‘People matter’ (Quaker faith & practice 24.49). Our first responsibility, then, is to grieve.

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