The quote about a single death being a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic is attributed to the dictator Joseph Stalin, and given that the former Soviet leader was responsible for taking the lives of millions of people, it sounds like the sort of thing he might have said. Whether Stalin actually uttered the words or not, they have the ring of truth about them, and we see this dynamic at work every day in the media.
When a plane crashes and everyone on board is killed, the press will solemnly report that two Catalans/Italians/Britons/Germans (depending on the country in question) died in the accident, while the fact that dozens of faceless and unnamed human beings of other nationalities also perished is just part of the context.
In the current health crisis, we have been hearing how hundreds of people passed away due to coronavirus the day before, only to be superseded by another few hundred just 24 hours later, and so on. At the time of writing, almost 5,000 people have officially died in Catalonia because of Covid-19, which are among the more than 23,000 fatalities in Spain as a whole, from among the 207,000 who have so far died worldwide.
To focus on a single death given such large numbers of people, all of whom had their own identities and lives, and who left behind loved ones who mourn their passing, doesn’t seem right somehow. And yet, as journalists well know, a single and specific example can often unlock a broader understanding of the bigger picture in a way that a torrent of overwhelming statistics can never do.
I witnessed an example of this in my own life recently when a close family member in England died. Talking to my relatives who were on the spot, I learned how, due to the lockdown, no one was allowed to be in the same room with her except for a carer, and that the closest they could get in her final hours was to look through the window from the garden of the home where she resided, and wave.
I hadn’t even thought about that.
And then by coincidence, just a couple of days later, I read a letter sent to a newspaper by an 81-year old man making the point that, “out of humanity”, the restrictions should be waived so that people can be close to their loved ones when they are dying. “I don’t like to think that, when my time comes, I would not be able to say goodbye to my wife and my children,” concluded the elderly gentleman.
How many thousands of those people who have fallen victim to Covid-19 have died alone? Some hospitals and homes are now allowing people into the rooms where their loved ones are dying, albeit dressed in protective clothing. These are the things that the statistics cannot tell us in quite the same way as can a single, tragic, death.