Desensitization to Mass Death


Katie Tanner, Contributor

Disaster psychology refers to the specialized field within psychology specifically dedicated to studying the effects of disasters on individuals, communities, and nations. A disaster can mean a lot of things- a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or, more relevantly, a pandemic. Over the course of the last two years, every human being on the planet has been subject to one shared disaster. Studies released early in the pandemic rang warning bells at the psychological effects of the global event, with one study by Giada Pietrabissa and Susan G. Simpson referring to lockdowns as a “storm of risks for depression”. 

That study was released in September of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic. Now, two years in, there is another looming psychological crisis: the desensitization to death caused by the pandemic. 

Since the start of the pandemic in December 2019, 5.74 million people have died of COVID-19. The United States has faced the most loss, just surpassing the grim milestone of having over 900,000 COVID-19 deaths. 

When the globe loses over 5.74 million people in the span of two years, there is no way to heal. You can’t cope with grief if you just keep losing people. Combined with the harmful effects of repeated lockdowns and being told it’s safe to go to work but not safe to see your family, it is no surprise that we face a mounting mental health crisis. 

It is also no surprise that, as the death toll increases, we as a society become desensitized to it. It is not possible to mourn over five million people, so it is easier to simply live as though that amount of loss is normal. 

A poll of Bob Jones High School students revealed that only 19.5% of respondents could correctly identify the global death toll. 7.3% of respondents incorrectly responded that the global death toll was only one million. 

How many people are coping with the pandemic by willfully staying uninformed? By pulling the covers over their heads and acting as though the medical infrastructure of the country isn’t being destroyed by one of the biggest spikes in COVID-19 cases yet? As a species, we have had to adapt to the fact of mass death simply to stay afloat. 

Each one of the 5.74 million people we have lost to COVID-19 left someone behind. Be it a spouse, a child, or simply a devoted pet- someone had to grieve for that loss. 

Of survey respondents, 24.4% reported that they personally knew someone who had died of COVID. Statistically speaking, that percentage will only increase, and it is guaranteed to as the pandemic continues. 

When asked how COVID-19 deaths had affected them personally, Bob Jones freshman Evie Waddell responded that “I notice myself getting super anxious when people say they have COVID because I’m terrified that I will lose them like how I have lost others.” 

Senior Brenna Oxley simply stated, “The amount of funerals I have attended is depressing.”

While becoming increasingly desensitized to mass death may be required to cope with the ongoing pandemic, it also means that we are liable to allow it to continue. If we don’t feel each of those deaths, we won’t feel another million, and that cycle will continue endlessly.

When we stop caring about the pandemic and about precautionary measures, that is when we stop caring about the deaths. In the face of shortened quarantine times and changing mask guidelines, it is harder to believe that we as a people still care about those precautionary measures. 

It is important, even if it hurts, to grieve the people this planet and this country have lost. Some, like Alex Goldstein, advocate for such. 

One Twitter account, @FacesOfCOVID, is dedicated to posting photos and bios of those we’ve lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, to humanize the increasingly daunting statistics. 

If feeling the pain of loss will motivate us to continue trying to prevent further death, then it is worth it to feel that pain.