One death is a tragedy; a million a statistic!

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Updated July 25, 2021

I wrote the original post under the above title in February 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic sets in. It referred to millions of deaths of animals due to massive wildfires in Australia. Then, I added an update in June 2020; at that time it was us – COVID19 gobbled 4,00,000 humans.

now, the world has aged one year from June 2020; the virus has claimed 10 times than the June 2020 total: Exactly 4,172,142 humans: 4.1 million!.

Can we comprehend that number? We simply cannot.

We have become numbed. Paul Slovic calls it “psychic numbing”. It is also called “compassion fatigue” or “compassion collapse”.

Paul Slovic, a research psychologist, captures the phenomenon succinctly in the following sentence;

The more who die, the less we care.

Paul Slovic.

His 2007 essay The American Psychological Association begins with Mother Teresa’s famous quote; it is;

“If I look at the mass I will never act; if I look at the one I will”

Mother Teresa

(Image under the license of  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany; Attribution: Túrelio)

Updated June 12, 2020

In February 2020, I wrote the original blog post that appears below about koalas feared dead due to Australian wildfires. This is about a cognitive limitation of the human mind: “Collapse of compassion” or “compassion fatigue”.

I did not imagine writing an update on this post about the human tragedy: The COVID-19 pandemic a few months later.

I thought of writing an update to it because now we are experiencing the same “compassion fatigue” about 413,000 deaths of ours this time, not animals.

The original post: February 13, 2020

We know what happened in the recent wildfires in Australia; thousands of “koalas feared dead”. Can we imagine what thousands of deaths -more accurately “burnt to death” – look like?

It is not easy;

Instead, look at the above photo of a koala. It evokes strong emotions of love and affection.

On October 17, 2018, Max Fisher wrote a thought-provoking article for The New York Times. It was about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. It was titled “How one journalist’s death provoked a backlash that thousands dead in Yemen did not”.

It is a very interesting question.


Max sees a parallel in his question with the “infamous” saying of Joseph Stalin, a one-time Russian dictator; that was the title of this post:

“The death of one is a tragedy, but the death of a million is just a statistic”


Yemen has been experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. People are dying even from Cholera, a disease that does not exist in most parts of the world. Still, we give very little attention to it. But the gruesome alleged killing of one journalist held the world’s attention for months.

Furthermore, Max also reminds us how the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy brought the whole world’s eyes to the Syrian tragedy.

We can find more examples to support this phenomenon from history; two famous examples are the boat of no smiles from Vietnam, and the famine in Somalia. I do not want to add any more here. There are many more. These are gruesome.

Max explains the practical application of Stalin’s “theory”; that is why reporters begin their storytelling with one victim of a flood, famine, or any other major disaster. These stories attract our attention. And, then we go into details.

“Collapse of compassion” or “compassion collapse” are the terms used to explain this phenomenon.

What is the”Collapse of Compassion”?

This is a psychological phenomenon according to which our degree of compassion begins to vanish to the extent that the number of suffering rises.

It becomes harder for us to comprehend the suffering of large numbers; Instead, we can be compassionate with just one or two individual sufferings.

This is a paradox; it is not what we expect to happen.

I have found several other attractive phrases to describe this phenomenon: compassion fatigue, compassion apathy, and compassion fade.

This is a very big problem; weigh in this paradox against a mass-scale famine, genocide, or massive climate change issue.

How do people apply this knowledge in practice?

This is the most crucial part.

So, our compassion is limited. When a large number of individuals are in need, we tend to ignore them leading to inaction. That is human nature.

The answer is there; If you need people to donate, highlight index cases in need. Then, call for action reducing the amount of contribution to a few dollars. That is what exactly not-for-profit organizations are doing. You can appreciate it if you follow their tv advertisements very closely.

So, if we show just one or two koalas in need, it will be much more effective to motivate donors rather than showing thousands of koalas!

Are there other ways that we could apply the phenomenon in practice?

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