It's a number's game?



My colleagues and I have been busy this week capturing the amazing traffic of polar bears coming thru Churchill Manitoba as they wait for sea ice to form along Hudson Bay. It's been a gift to be on the webcam crew at Explore.org. We've seen Moms with Cubs (3!), a number of sparring young male bears and a fair number of bears lounging around tucked into the snow, or seeming to pose for the camera.


It's been much needed stress relief in a week tense with increasing pandemic numbers and American election anxiety. I give a wave-of-the-paw to Polar Bear International for putting out their Polar Bear Cam Bingo as a great distraction. And we are all craving distraction right now.



All the while, on and off camera, I've been trying to wrap my head around numbers. Years ago, I gave up on national news when they seemed to report only the mass deaths from some accident or calamity on the other side of the world. Intellectually I was saddened for families affected by the tragedy. But personally? I felt like knowing the crisis had occurred only heightened my sense of anxiety - I couldn't control these tragedies and they made the world seem even less comprehensible and more risky. It also felt like the lost of life count turned humans - living, breathing, family and friends into mere statistics. And statistics to me weren't helpful. A bus drives off the cliff in South America killing 100 people? An earthquake sets off the tsunami in Japan in 2011 and it takes out 20,000? And now the news that over 200,000 Americans have died of Covid? What's an order of magnitude when we talk about life? As I've often said, it doesn't matter to me if the odds are 1:1,000 if I'm unlucky enough to be the 1.


I'm embarrassed that I can only equate to numbers I've experienced. I know that our local football stadium was proud to announce it could seat just over 107,000. I've been in that stadium. The shear noise of that many people is deafening. And the mob-rule feeling inside is either exhilarating or terrifying - depending on your tolerance and your commitment to "the team." So the US has lost 2 x that number of people. If they'd all died at one terrorist or natural disaster based event, we'd be horrified. But spread out 237,000 deaths from Covid among the 328+ million of us that call the US home? We get lost in the numbers. And that makes it much harder to "feel" unless you're directly affected.

I tried to explain this to a friend from Canada. She rightly said that mental health in lock down is suffering and that her personal view was we should protect those that need protection and then get on with life. But I pointed out that my state, Michigan, has had as many deaths from Covid (~7,000+) in our one state than all of Canada had experienced at that point. No matter that all of Canada's population fits inside California. My point was only that our experience of Covid seems to be related to population and how deeply the occurrence of Covid has affected your community. It's not the number but the "feel" of the number.

I need to relate to the numbers some how. The town I grew up in had a population of 5,504 people. When I learned that it was likely that only 25,000 polar bears were left on the planet, I tried to think of this in terms of my home town - only I imaged it as a town 5 x the size of my home town and where all of inhabitants were polar bears. There! I could imagine 25,000 bears. But as the numbers get larger, the impact of them gets diluted. They become harder for me to "feel."


Then I remembered (and confirmed via Wikipedia) that the "Boxing Day Tsunami" that hit Malaysia in 2004 resulted in 230,000 deaths. That made it, at the time, the deadliest natural disaster of modern times. Our current Covid deaths have topped that, putting the US deaths above the list of top 10 deadliest natural disasters. That's not a list I ever wanted us to be on. Or put another way - what a different experience we'd have if my state, with its population of just over 9 million, had "only" had the death toll of New Zealand (population ~7 million). New Zealand has had 25 deaths. Not 7,000. 25. That's a number that's relatable. As is the difference between that number and the 7,000 families in my state that have lost a friend, a colleague, a loved one, a community leader. Covid is now the third highest cause of death in the US - behind heart disease and cancer. It is expected that within the next month, if things don't change, we'll be catching up on both of those. This is unimaginable to me.

Which only serves to explain why it has been both a distraction and distracting to watch bears all this week.


A distraction for obvious reasons and distracting because it took me away from obsessing about our seeming inability to stop the increase in the number of deaths due to this virus.


When I started this blog I thought the biggest concerns for us as humans was climate change - which would naturally also affect the population of polar bears. Now I worry about our human population and the stresses that ignorance and fear put on us. In addition to climate change. In addition to this, that it is quite likely more pandemics will come into our world as our environment warms. I can't quite wrap my head around it but I am deeply, deeply troubled.


So I leave you with three small pieces of, hopefully, good news.


First, Canada has done two things recently that I makes me love them more. First, they cut off regular traffic to and from the US until we got things under control. I applaud them on that even as I chafed that I couldn't go into their country this summer. Second they announced protection with their First Nations colleagues for a chain of islands in Hudson Bay. It may not be a lot but it's a start and we need to start thinking about these lands and their access to the northern waterways.

Second, Dr. Derocher wrote a realistic piece in PBI's latest blog post about researchers in the pandemic. Researchers everywhere have had to suspend their data collections this year and it's been hard to watch scientists suffer with the interruptions to their life's work. But they continue on. And we will all, for the duration of our lives, know what "2020" means when we begin to shorthand it to explain disruptions and distortions. There is reassurance in knowing we're all in this together. That we can figure some things out.

And, lastly, the first wave of our election stress has finally concluded. And we can hope, again, that with the change in President the US can once more take up the challenges of climate change and address them with our partners from around the world. We have so precious little time left to make a difference in the world as we know it and in the world that lets my small population of bears still pose for our cameras. Let's hope we don't waste the two most precious resources we each have - our love for one another and time. -Nameste











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