Numb to the numbers: Canadians desensitized to COVID-19 case and death rates

Nearly one year since the World Health Organization started referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic, the daily new case numbers have lost meaning for many Canadians.

On March 17, 2020, Ontario and Alberta declared states of emergency. By March 20, when B.C., Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Manitoba also declared states of emergency, Canada had a total of 215 new cases of COVID-19, with a 7-day average of 127 cases.

11 months later, on Feb. 25, 2021, Canada added 3,094 cases with a 7-day average of 2,961.

Since then, the numbers have lost meaning for many. University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens says that’s because of semantic satiation, a phenomenon in which an oft-repeated word or phrase loses its meaning.

“If you say the word bullfrog to yourself 10 times, it starts to lose any meaning,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone. “It’s the same thing with these numbers. We see them over and over again and they just become numbers.”

Doctors say they see it on the frontlines.

“I think we’ve become numb to the numbers,” emergency room physician Dr. Lisa Salamon told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview.

She said that, after a harrowing start to 2021 at the hospital where she works, anything is better than what she experienced then.

“When I look at my hospital numbers like, oh wow, we only have 100 COVID-19 patients, and 23 in ICU, compared to 150 to 190 in January,” she said. “My standard of terrible was that first week or two of January that was horrible, so anything not as horrible was OK.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch agrees we’ve become desensitized to the significance of the numbers of cases and deaths.

“At the end of the day, there’s people at the heart of this, they’re husbands and wives and children, members of the community,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone. “It’s awful, I think we’re totally becoming desensitized to that.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, Canadians were keenly interested in tracking the numbers and what they meant, Joordens said.

“I think we were all deeply invested in COVID, we did do the numbers and we did do the thinking, and I think we’re just now where we’re all exhausted on that level and the numbers have lost all meaning," he said.

There was also a lot of fear early on in the pandemic, and a lot of unknowns.

“If you remember how scared we were last March, we’ve learned to live with it, we’ve gotten used to these numbers,” Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University whose research focuses on scientific and medical rhetoric, told CTVNews.ca over the phone.

The daily updates from each province and territory, and the country as a whole, begin to lose meaning when there are no faces or human stories behind the data, Joordens said. People relate to emotional human stories, he added. 

“There was a time when it was 100 going to 200 was huge, and then we get used to 1,000 and then we get used to 1,500,” he said.

Not to mention the general public not having the epidemiological knowledge to properly interpret these numbers, said Derkatch, as the daily case counts are typically provided without much specific context.

“We hear these numbers and we think we have a good sense...but that doesn’t tell us about how the numbers are moving in time, and where they’re moving among which populations. It’s really tricky,” she said.

Having policies that don’t align with case counts causes further confusion, she added. Before the most recent lockdowns in Ontario, people were urged to stay home and only see people they lived with, but policies allowed Ontarians to visit a restaurant with up to six people.

“They don’t really mean anything unless they have action,” said Derkatch.

The onslaught of daily information no longer appeals to our emotions and fear, or holds attention.

“I worry that we as a society have become numb to the numbers, like deaths,” Dr. Naheed Dosani, palliative care physician and health justice advocate, told CTVNews.ca via email.

He said that the key to a good communications strategy is to emphasize the people behind those numbers, to tell their narratives, and what their lives were like.

“When you start aggregating data, you lose the humanity behind it and you lose that connection that a lot of people feel,” said Joordens.

The political squabbling over vaccine rollout and the differing measures in cities, regions and provinces confuse matters more, he said.

“It starts to feel like the numbers aren’t real anymore, the numbers aren’t facts, the numbers aren’t data.”

It can also lead to mistrust of the information, said Dr. Dosani.

“The COVID pandemic and the vaccine itself are rife with misinformation from many sources,” he said.  “I suspect that political squabbling over the virus and vaccines has lead to mistrust in general.”

For Derkatch, seeing political leaders of all levels passing the buck throughout the pandemic means things aren’t getting done, and what people want is for leaders and experts to figure out a way to end this.

“It kind of feels like you’re left on your own.”