Power and impotence of number

100,000 dead, a terrible number. A newspaper published the names, not all, but a thousand, with a few dates, a list in small letters, a shock, an epitaph. That was in May 2020 in the USA, a fan of the “New York Times” against Trump’s downplaying of the Corona, in view of 100,000 American Covid victims.

100,000 dead. A terrible number, now it has been reached in Germany. The “Süddeutsche” filled four pages with 100,000 crosses and printed 15 short memorials of relatives. The Tagesspiegel published dozens of memorials under the title “These people are missing” in December 2020, and since then one candle for every dead person.

Behind every single number there is a person, a name, a face, a fate, mourners, family, friends. Corona statisticians counted one million deaths worldwide in September 2020, two million in January 2021, and now over five million. The front runners are the USA, Brazil, India and Russia. Front runner, a macabre word.

Death remains a taboo

We got used to numbers in the pandemic. Corona, this invisible threat, is made visible with lists, curves, tables, and we rationalize and ration the irrational virus. But no matter how hard we try, we cannot fix it with the current incidence, the reproductive value, the hospitalization value, the vaccination rates. Still, the day starts with us taking a look. When a round zero is reached, we are shocked by the waypoint and pause for a moment.

Numbers are both concrete and abstract, they make you dizzy. The higher they are, the more they exceed imagination, lead to anonymity, create distance. We don’t know how to help each other. The outrage over Jens Spahn’s 3G message “Vaccinated, recovered, died” is great: It is better to be warned in the news that too many sick people are coming to the intensive care unit. Death as the next stop remains a taboo, hundreds of thousands of times.

It is presumptuous to try to measure the victims with numbers

When it comes to death, disease, war and violence, power and impotence have always been close together. In the oldest play in the world, the “Persians” by Aeschylus, the names of the war victims are listed, not of their own but of the defeated people. A list as evidence of empathy. The names of the Holocaust victims in Yad Vashem and other memorials, the lists of the Vietnam victims, the Mediterranean refugees, they are gestures against forgetting, attempts to take back abstraction in the act of remembrance. To remember the dead by name means to give them dignity. Numbers are undignified.

We measure what and who we miss. In German, the word has a double meaning: Yes, it is presumptuous to want to depict the pandemic with numbers so that politics can get an overview, numerical control over death so that measures can be taken against it. But there is no other way. In the fourth wave, the numbers in Germany are increasing faster than ever. The Chancellor’s gloomy prognosis from September that there could be 19,200 newly infected people every day at Christmas has long been exceeded. Growing exponentially, the numbers gallop away and the politicians, we are all left behind.

Angela Merkel promised in March that she would not watch until there were 100,000 new infections every day. We are now at almost 70,000 a day. The number of Corona deaths in Berlin is currently 3790. These people are missing. When will the next round zero come, the next milestone? Death remains immeasurable.

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