Sometime this week, alone on a hospital bed, an American died. The coronavirus had invaded her lungs, soaking them in fluid and blocking the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that makes up our every breath. Her immune system’s struggle to fight back might have sparked an overreaction called a cytokine storm, which shreds even healthy tissue. The doctors tried everything, but they couldn’t save her, and she became the 200,000th American taken by COVID-19—at least according to official counts.
In reality, the COVID-19 death toll probably passed 200,000 some time ago. And yet “the photos of body bags have not had the same effect in the pandemic” as after other mass-casualty events such as Hurricane Katrina, says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies disasters. “Is our national empathy—our care and love and concern for one another—at such a low level that we are not truly feeling, in our bones, in our hearts, and in our souls, the magnitude of the loss?”
It’s hard for anyone to comprehend the sheer horror of mass death. As I wrote in April, “compassion fade” sets in when victims are no longer individuals but statistics, and few Americans have witnessed something of this scale before. But there’s an additional explanation for this empathy deficit: Part of the reason this majority-white, majority-non-elderly country has been so blasé about COVID-19 deaths is that mostly Black people and old people are dying. Eight out of 10 American COVID-19 deaths have been among people older than 65; the rest of the dead are disproportionately Black. White people’s brains psychologically sort minorities as “out-groups” that stir less empathy. Segregated neighborhoods have also helped insulate white Americans from the horror Black Americans face, because the ambulance sirens and the packed hospital wards are typically far from their own zip codes. “We literally don’t see those deaths in the same way we might if we didn’t experience segregation,” says Nour Kteily, a management professor at Northwestern University who studies hierarchies.