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Beyond the numbers: Are Albertans getting lost in COVID-19 statistics?

Click to play video 'Beyond the numbers: Are dead Albertans getting lost in COVID-19 statistics?' Beyond the numbers: Are dead Albertans getting lost in COVID-19 statistics?
The high number of COVID-19 fatalities can be overwhelming and difficult to process: on Tuesday alone, the province reported 38 deaths. As the pandemic persists, the passing of so many Albertans is getting lost in the statistics. Morgan Black explores why the magnitude of the numbers can lead to numbness and disengagement – Jan 13, 2021

As the pandemic persists, the lives and stories of many Albertans are getting lost in a surge of data as statistics.

Dr. Eleanor Stein lost her father, Dr. Richard Stein, to COVID-19 in November.

Read more: Celebrated neuroscientist dies during COVID-19 outbreak at Edmonton General

Her father was a celebrated scientist who worked at the University of Alberta for 50 years. Eleanor described him as an incredibly “decent” man, who always helped students.

“I’ll look at a picture of my dad and it all comes rushing back,” she said.

To the rest of the province, news of Dr. Stein’s death came as a daily statistic.

Read more: 40-year-old Edmonton man documents his heartbreaking decline before COVID-19 took his life

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“It’s a necessary shorthand. At the same time, each of of these people are so missed,” Eleanor said. “Each loss has a huge ripple.”

In March, Alberta saw its first COVID-19 death. It took nearly nine months to record 500 deaths. Less than two months later, in January, the province is approaching 1,500 deaths.

Dr. Sean Rogers, a psychologist at MacEwan University, said it can be difficult to contextualize the numbers reported over nearly the past year.

“Our brain didn’t evolve to deal with thousands and millions. It evolved to deal with handfuls,” he said.

Click to play video 'Health Matters: Loved ones remember health-care worker who died of COVID-19' Health Matters: Loved ones remember health-care worker who died of COVID-19
Health Matters: Loved ones remember health-care worker who died of COVID-19 – Jan 12, 2021

On Tuesday, 38 deaths related to COVID-19 were reported in Alberta — the highest single day total thus far. Rogers said putting that number into something we feel more attached to can create more tangible context.

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“That would be, ‘The loss of every person I am really emotionally attached to,'” Rogers said. “That would be like every student in my research class.”

The magnitude of numbers reported each day can also lead the brain to become less responsive, as is typical with repeated stimuli.

Read more: 40-year-old Edmonton man documents his heartbreaking decline before COVID-19 took his life

“That number is psychologically and emotionally overwhelming. We can be overwhelmed by it every day or we can reduce our response to it over time,” he said.

“What happens is that our emotional response is reduced and then it becomes background noise, unfortunately.”

Rogers said it is important for the brain to be able to adapt and change, in order to survive and thrive during difficult times.

“It’s because the emotional toll of not doing that would inhibit us,” the psychologist said. “We need to adjust to the situation we are living in. You would burn out.”

Read more: COVID-19 could be one of the leading causes of death in Alberta in 2020

Rogers said it’s important to maintain our sense of compassion.

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“You don’t want to lose a sense of empathy.

“You need to remember this is an individual — this isn’t a number.”