One of the many issues state governments had to wrestle with during the COVID-19 coronavirus disease pandemic in 2020 was determining when it might be safe to ease some of the lockdown restrictions that kept businesses closed and people at home — too soon, and many people might become infected and die while the nation’s medical infrastructure remained overtaxed; too late, and many businesses (as well as the overall economy) might suffer long-term damage that lingered on well after the pandemic had run its course.
The overall question was the vexing one of, “How many deaths is an acceptable number?” — where is the appropriate trade-off point between reopening the economy while knowing that some people will likely die as a result?
An animated GIF supposedly framed that issue by presenting the same question to an ordinary person, and when he ventured that between 70 to 700 deaths was a reasonable number to justify reopening the economy, he was shown a literal representation of 70 lives — all of them his family members:
This GIF originated with a source that employed that very same framing to address a social issue, but the original had nothing to do with pandemics or reopening the economy. It was part of Transport for New South Wales’ “Towards Zero” campaign that sought to “highlight the human element of the road toll and encourage all road users to change the way we think about road safety,” with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero.
In the original video, a man in the street was interviewed, informed that “last year, 347 people died on our roads,” and asked what he thought would be a more acceptable number of deaths. After the man replied “70,” the announcer proceeded to show him what a group of 70 people looks like by bringing out 70 members of the man’s family:
A man is interviewed in the street.
Interviewer: So last year, 347 people died on our roads. What do you think would be a more acceptable number?
Man: Um, acceptable, 70 maybe, probably 70.
[The interviewer speaks into a radio.]
Interviewer: Can you send 70?
[A group of 70 people emerges from around a corner and walks toward the man. They are all members of his family.]
Interviewer: Actually, this is what 70 people looks like.
[The man realises the people are all members of his family.]
Man: That’s my family.
Interviewer: So, now what do you think would be a more acceptable number?
Man: Zero … zero.
Regardless of the underlying subject, the message remains a powerful one: It’s sometimes all too easy for us to consider deaths as a mere abstraction or statistic — as something that happens to other, faceless people — when making life-and-death decisions, but our viewpoint becomes a very different one when we ponder the potential outcome of those decisions on people we know and love.