The pandemic’s death toll in the United States will surpass 1 million people in the coming days. Conveying the meaning or the magnitude of this number is impossible. But 1 million deaths is the benchmark of an unprecedented American tragedy.
Consider this comparison: The population of D.C. is about 670,000 people. Try to imagine life without every person, in every building, on every street, in the nation’s capital. And then imagine another 330,000 people are gone.
To attempt to put the 1 million deaths in context, we plotted its damage over more than two years and compared the continuing death toll with the tolls from previous catastrophes in our history.
Until the eighteenth century, the London Bills of Mortality would frequently list a cause of death as “planet.” This meant that a man had died without apparent cause, but the reason was clear. He had fallen under the influence of an evil star. A planet had killed this man, as directly as if a trillion tons of livid space-rock had come screaming out of the sky to conk him on the head. This is what it means to believe in astrology: accepting that at any moment, the mathematically preordained rhythms of the heavens might simply decide to kill you.
Formal citation: James E. Ciecka. 2008. Edmond Halley’s Life Table and Its Uses. Journal of Legal Economics 15(1): pp. 65-74.
Halley obtained demographic data for Breslau, a city in Silesia which is now the Polish city Wroclaw. Breslau kept detailed records of births, deaths, and the ages of people when they died. In comparison, when John Graunt (1620-1674) published his famous demographic work (1662), ages of deceased people were not recorded in London and would not be recorded until the 18th century.
Caspar Neumann, an important German minister in Breslau, sent some demographic records to Gottfried Leibniz who in turn sent them to the Royal Society in London. Halley analyzed Newmann’s data which covered the years 1687-1691 and published the analysis in the Philosophical Transactions. Although Halley had broad interests, demography and actuarial science were quite far afield from his main areas of study. Hald (2003) has speculated that Halley himself analyzed these data because, as the editor of the Philosophical Transactions, he was concerned about the Transactions publishing an adequate number of quality papers. 2 Apparently, by doing the work himself, he ensured that one more high quality paper would be published.
Last year, it was especially in older ages that the number of deaths was more than in the immediately preceding years. The increasing number of deaths also affected men to a greater extent than women. The excess mortality rate last year was greatest among men older than 75 years, in the age group 75–84 years 20.6 per cent died more than during the comparison period. Among younger women 0-34 years, there was no excess mortality, -8.9 percent fewer died compared with the comparison period. For women, just like men, the differences were greatest in the oldest age groups; in the group aged 75–84, 14.7 per cent more deaths were noted than the average over the past five years.
It is not easy to put the number of dead in a longer historical context. Not least because the demographic composition and population of the country has changed. The development of the number of deaths over time is affected partly by the medical development and partly by the development of various diseases and lifestyles. The number of deaths during different periods is also affected by how many are at the ages when most people die.