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Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians, journalists, and social media commentators have made several attempts to put the rising death toll into perspective. In March 2020, when the United States saw its first 100,000 deaths from this disease, The New York Times noted that this death toll exceeded the “number of U.S. military combat fatalities in every conflict since the Korean War.”
As the death toll increased, new parallels were drawn. In February 2021, when the death toll crossed the half million threshold, the BBC published an article noting that this was larger than the population of Atlanta. In June 2021, when the death toll hit 600,000, The Associated Press reported that this was equal to the number of people who die from cancer every year. In September 2021, as the United States reflected on 9/11, Axios noted that COVID-19 was killing the amount of people who died during these terrorist attacks (about 3,000) every two days.
When the COVID-19 death toll surpassed 700,000 American citizens, a new comparison was made. According to a viral October 2021 Reddit post, COVID-19 has caused more American deaths than every foreign conflict in United States’ history.
This graph is accurate. It should be noted, however, that this graph shows major foreign conflicts, but not every foreign conflict. For example, this graph does not show the Quasi-War or the Barbary Wars, but the causalities during these conflicts were minimal (less than a hundred).
As of this writing on Oct. 7, 2021, there have been 704,233 deaths from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We checked the American death tolls for these wars, and found that this graph was largely accurate. In some cases, such as with the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the figures listed in this graph factored in deaths from disease in addition to battle deaths. In other cases, such as the Gulf War, the statistics we found did not quite match the figures listed in this graph. However, the difference in statistics was negligible.
If you add the death toll from World War II (405,399), World War I (116,516), Vietnam War (58,220), Korean War (36,574), Revolutionary War (about 25,000), War of 1812 (about 15,000), Mexican-American War (13,283), War on Terror (about 7,000), Philippine-American War (4,200), Spanish-American War (2,447), Gulf War (383), you find that COVID-19 has resulted in more American deaths (about 700,000) than the number of deaths suffered during every major foreign conflict (685,000) in United States’ history.
Comparing deaths from a pandemic to deaths from a combination of wars, however, isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Unfortunately, there’s an even more direct historical parallel that you can draw to put the COVID-19 death toll in perspective. In September 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic became the deadliest pandemic in American history as the death toll surpassed the death toll from the 1918 flu pandemic.
Covid-19 is officially the most deadly outbreak in recent American history, surpassing the estimated U.S. fatalities from the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Reported U.S. deaths due to Covid crossed 675,000 on Monday, and are rising at an average of more than 1,900 fatalities per day, Johns Hopkins data shows. The nation is currently experiencing yet another wave of new infections, fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant.
The 1918 flu – which came in three waves, occurring in the spring of 1918, the fall of 1918; and the winter and spring of 1919 – killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, according to the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention. It was considered America’s most lethal pandemic in recent history up until now.
CDC. “COVID Data Tracker.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Mar. 2020, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker.
“Covid US Death Toll: Imagining What 500,000 Lost Lives Look Like.” BBC News, 22 Feb. 2021. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56150141.
“Four Months After First Case, U.S. Death Toll Passes 100,000.” The New York Times, 27 May 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/us/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html.
Jr, Berkeley Lovelace. “Covid Is Officially America’s Deadliest Pandemic as U.S. Fatalities Surpass 1918 Flu Estimates.” CNBC, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/20/covid-is-americas-deadliest-pandemic-as-us-fatalities-near-1918-flu-estimates.html.
Milestones: 1899–1913 – Office of the Historian. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/war. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.
Reed, Tina. “COVID Is Exacting the Death Toll of a 9/11 Every Two Days.” Axios, https://www.axios.com/covid-deaths-september-11-8b2b230f-9dd4-4c4c-b677-6df2be18ccc9.html. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.
“US COVID-19 Deaths Hit 600,000, Equal to Yearly Cancer Toll.” AP NEWS, 15 June 2021, https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-600k-deaths-us-1ef14a0b998e6ce99281edf6e996dfbe.
“War of 1812 Facts.” American Battlefield Trust, 30 Mar. 2017, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/war-of-1812-faqs.
Windholz, Michael E. O’Hanlon and Lily. “Do Not Take the War on Terror’s Big Success for Granted.” Brookings, 27 Aug. 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/08/27/do-not-take-the-war-on-terrors-big-success-for-granted/.