Dude, where’s the Washington Monument?

Or: the geographical volume of covid’s human toll

by Jimmy Sprinkles

It’s the middle of January, 2022. Nearly two years have elapsed since the virus colloquially known as Covid hit US shores. In that time we have experienced a series of tumultuous events that feel like a work of dystopian fiction. I keep wondering who went back in time to shoot a dinosaur but wound up stomping on a historically critical butterfly. 

We’re bombarded by statistics, colored-coded maps and graphs on an hourly basis by our media outlets. These figures might seem abstract and impersonal to many, while many others have become completely desensitized. It’s hard to understand the scale of this disaster when we’re confronted with death toll figures so high they could be mistaken for a fortune 500 CEO’s salary compared to percentages of the human population so miniscule that said CEO would be dismissed by the board if they appeared on a quarterly report.

With this bewildering data in mind I set out one evening to make sense of it all. There’s a line in Grosse Point Blank where Mini Driver orders John Cusac to, “tell me about the dead people”. I decided to embark on a little thought experiment to do exactly that. 

What follows is my attempt to visualize geographically the cost of America’s muddled response to covid. For this experiment I decided to focus only on America’s death toll. I have checked and rechecked my figures and the results should be sobering to anyone without an antisocial personality disorder.

The first thing to do is arrive at a number of covid deaths that can be, if not accepted, then at least agreed upon by people with differing opinions on the accuracy of case and mortality reporting. We’re going to have to make some concessions here for the sake of argument. It also will make our lives easier to be working from a round, tidy figure. As of writing the official statistic is in excess of 860,000 adult covid related deaths in the United States. 

Let’s agree to focus solely on adult mortality.  Because, well, it’s hard to get a number on covid related deaths of minors. I can come up with a rate via google but that percentage requires additional data and calculation to turn into a number. The death juvenile rate is pretty low. 

To be generous to those who feel the official death toll is grossly overreported, let’s  put some give in that number to appease the skeptic in everyone’s family.

Why don’t we round that 860k+ figure to 800k even. We’ve now taken the minors out of the equation and taken a bite out of this possibly inflated head count. In order to make my point I’m willing to make further concessions. I’ve had people claim to me that the number has been inflated by anywhere between 10 and 50%. I would disagree. My personal opinion is that deaths are underreported, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that there’s quite a bit to certain people’s doubts and say that on average mortality has been 25% overreported due to loose standards of what constitutes a covid related death in some states. Well this is easy arithmetic! With a generous 25% rate of overreported fatalities we have arrived at 600,000 deaths in the USA since the start of the pandemic. That’s the skeptic-friendly number we’re going to base all of our calculations on… 

How do we visualize that number of people? Certainly you don’t know 600,000 other humans. Well that’s why we’re going to lay them out and estimate some acreage. Hopefully in the process the death toll will cease to be a percentage or a hypothetical number for us all. Are you ready? Let’s do this.

What if we lay these unalive individuals end to end, side to side? Let’s make this easy and say we’re going 300k up and 300k across. But how much square footage does a human take up? This is where we’re going to need to consult the CDC. I can hear some of you groaning already. Could we all agree that the US government can at the very least average out all those heights on state driver’s licenses with a tolerable degree of accuracy; and that they’ve done reasonably plausible work averaging chest, hip and shoe size measurements? Well, if not, stop reading.

Still here? Good. Since you were willing to concede the point (or never disputed it in the first place) you should know that according to the CDC the average adult male is 5’9” tall while the average height of an adult female is 5’4”. Thanks to the joys of the imperial system, averaging those 2 measurements comes up with a fractional number of inches that will needlessly complicate this process. I propose we go with 5’3” for the height of an average lady. Throughout this entire process we will estimate low and round down even if rounding up would be more appropriate. Great, now we have an average adult height in the USA: 5 feet and 6 inches. An imperial foot is 12 inches, so moving forward 5.5 will be the figure representing the height of each of the dearly departed.

In general the widest point on the adult male body should be the shoulders while an adult female is typically widest at the hips. Average shoulder width for a man is usually reported at 16.1” or 1’4.1”, and the average woman measures 13.622” or 1’1.622” hip to hip. When we average those numbers we arrive at 14.861”. I think we can safely round down to a single foot. The removal of almost 3” of space will make our calculations easier and hopefully appease anyone who felt that our 25% rate of over reporting was too low. 

Now it’s time to calculate the total width and depth in feet so we can arrive at an acreage. For height we have 300,000 humans who are on average 5.5’ tall, so the height of our rectilinear space will be 1,650,000’. This rectangle is again 300,000 persons long and we’ve conservatively specified 1’ of space for each at their widest point. Now we can easily multiply them the way we were taught in elementary school to arrive at a square footage of 495 billion square feet. That’s 495 followed by 9 zeroes, roughly half a trillion square feet. Mrs. Boyce from my 4th grade math class would be so proud of me right now, but I digress.

Google can easily tell you that an acre is 43,560 square feet. Now that Imperial measurement sounds so particularly arbitrary, but that’s how we play in the USA. So to arrive at acreage we would divide our 495 billion by 43,560. Double check my figures yourself,  you can google an imperial system acreage calculator and plug in 1,650,000 for length and 300,000 for width. You could also double check my division this way if you were so inclined. Working from the imperial system the answer using a calculator is of course annoyingly fractional but for our purposes 600,000 human bodies laid out in the specified arrangement will occupy 11,363,636 acres of land.

Approximately 11.3 million acres of land is a lot of space. It’s not easier to picture than 600,000 people. Why don’t we identify a space we can all understand to compare that number to. Given the federal government’s patchy response to this public health crisis I propose we use the capital, Washington DC. What’s great here apart from the aforementioned stab at irony is that unlike other American cities the borders of DC are fixed, so no matter when you’ve been there, it’s still the same size as what’s stated by Wikipedia and Britannica; 43,766 acres.

Obviously we can’t fit all those covid victims in the district in one layer. It’s time to do a little more division to figure out how high we would have to stack them in order to keep these poor folk from spilling into Maryland and Virginia. That gets us a long fraction but in the spirit of rounding down why don’t we call it 259 discrete layers of victims. This is more of a generalization; DC isn’t square, I used to live there, however I think we can go with this figure just to continue the visualization.

At this point I’m going to have to stretch your credulity a bit further and propose that we imagine removing all the structures in the district (yes, imagine, I said IMAGINE; don’t try to level the capitol) apart from the Washington Monument which will become our yardstick of loss. It’s hard to get a figure for how deep a layer of former covid patients would be because humans vary a lot in that department, and we’re pretty lumpy all over, and some sections of our body have a tendency to compress. Based on measuring my own chest and shoulders, I’m posting a figure of 6 inches for our depth. It’s pretty conservative, but again the goal is to keep rounding down here.

With our figure of 6 inches in hand why don’t we resume working in feet? To estimate a depth of our morbid rectangular cuboid we can just divide 259 in half and since it’s not an even number why don’t we drop the decimal? This gives us 129 feet. Our yardstick, big GW’s quasi-phallic monument? It’s 555 feet and 5 and 1/8ths inches (gotta love non-metric measurements). We’re covering over a quarter of the damned obelisk! Don’t bother trying to climb the steps for an aerial view, because the entrance is no longer going to be accessible, even if you could get into this town full of dead people.

Let me reiterate that this is a thought experiment tinged with more sadness than irony. I just want you to be able to picture the scale of loss in your mind. I am not advocating we bury our lawmakers in corpses to express our disapproval. I’m not advocating we actually level the capital. I’m just asking you to forget the sub-1% death rate that’s often touted and imagine people stacked a quarter of the way up the monument in even rows and columns keeping in mind that each one of them was (hopefully) loved by at least one other person. Imagine all the lives touched by the loss of these people. How much space would their mourners occupy?

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