One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. So goes a quote attributed to Stalin that he probably never said. But we do not need such grand scales to numb us. One death is a tragedy; 10 deaths is already a statistic.
On the 29th of January 2004, a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked the 19 bus on Aza Street in Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers.
In the 16 and a half years since that horrific attack, 426 people in Israel have been killed by Palestinian terrorism; an average of 25 a year. And because the attacks are less common, they hurt more. The name and face of each victim of terror is carried on the news and remembered. One death is a tragedy.
The first Israeli died of COVID-19 on March 20. The 88-year-old man, who lived in the Nofim retirement home, had several serious pre-existing conditions. One death is a tragedy.
In the three months since that first death, 440 people in Israel have died of COVID-19, more than were killed in 16 and a half years of Palestinian terrorism. Despite its scale, or because of its scale, the tragedy has become a statistic.
A deadly virus is not the same as the deliberate murder of terrorism, of course. One is targeted and malicious, the other unthinking and indiscriminate. But the dead are just as dead, the injured are just as injured, yet the difference in public awareness is striking.
Three times a day now, the Health Ministry’s statistics are released. New infections, percentage change, percentage positivity. How many hospital admissions and how many in critical condition. The number of patients on ventilators. And the number of dead, too, is reported. But it isn’t emphasized. It’s not the story. It’s just another statistic.
The Israeli public thinks this second wave is less harmful than the first, but that’s not because people stopped dying. It’s because people stopped caring that people were dying.
Israel does not yet have the true horror of death tolls on the scale of Italy, Britain or New York, and perhaps that is calming, but the hospitals are filling up, with five times more serious cases in hospital today than just three weeks ago. The government, the Knesset and the public have given up trying to stop the virus, with every new proposed restriction opposed, defeated and reversed. Things are going to get worse before they get better.
In the past week, 45 Israelis died of COVID-19 — the same number as killed by terrorists in the last three and a half years. We do not know their names, their faces or their stories. We barely even know they passed. Who were they? Where did they live? What did they accomplish in their long lives? Who did they leave behind?
For now, the Israeli public is letting them die. Our challenge as a society, at bare minimum, is to mourn them, to remember them and never to let them become a statistic. Perhaps if we can achieve that act of humanity, that act of humanization, the public will wake up to the human cost of the virus and finally act to stop its spread before the statistics win.