How many dead? Only after the coronavirus had claimed more than 60,000 lives—Donald Trump’s previous estimate for how many Americans might die—did the president acknowledge that the toll could rise to 100,000. The projections keep changing, and the question of whether authorities are even counting correctly looms ever larger. The United States has a duty to make an accurate tally, and not just because Americans need to know how many people to grieve.
Why do people die? This isn’t just a philosophical or religious question. For crisis-response experts, it also has tactical implications. Why did that person die, while this person didn’t? Attributing a fatality to an earthquake, hurricane, or some other catastrophe explains only so much, because people experiencing these events do so in widely varied ways. To know what ended someone’s life may help give their family peace, but it also teaches the living how to spare others the same fate. We learn from the dead.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a large number of “excess deaths” occurred across five weeks in March and April. Even excluding deaths already attributed to the coronavirus, states hit hard by the pandemic have recorded many more fatalities than normal. Thousands of Americans may have died of undiagnosed COVID-19 or because they could not or did not get medical treatment. Were any of these deaths the result of shortages of personal protective equipment? Could any of them be tied to travel or attendance at so-called super-spreader events? Would closer adherence to social-distancing rules have saved them? Without knowing what happened in these cases, experts miss out on potentially lifesaving insights.