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How the Coronavirus Death Toll Compares to Other Deadly Events From American History

3 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When the White House projected in March, 2020 that, even with social distancing measures, 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die of COVID-19, the numbers were not necessarily shocking to those who had been paying attention. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had already said he projected between 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. deaths, and estimates by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington are not much different, projecting 81,766 American deaths by Aug. 4, 2020 as of April 6 of that year.

But, even though those numbers were only projections, it was already clear that this “war” with an invisible enemy that, well more than a year later, may very well be deadlier than the worst battles and emergencies in U.S. history.

Soon after the White House announced its projection, observers were quick to make the comparison to the Vietnam War, during which about 60,000 were killed on the battlefield.

The visualization below shows how the COVID-19 death toll compares to estimated U.S. death tolls of several other pandemics that have hit the U.S. and major conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War and up through the September 11th attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ operations (as of March 30, 2020), drawing mostly from data gathered by the Congressional Research Service, the Defense Casualty Analysis System and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The estimated death toll of the Civil War still trumps all other military conflicts on the list, and may even be higher than the 1918 flu pandemic death toll in the U.S., as some scholars think the total is as high as 750,000-850,000 and the number of Confederate deaths is not clear. (That higher number is thought by many to better capture the impact of the Civil War, but it also includes civilian casualties and some deaths attributed to the conflict but that that took place after it ended.)

However, the graph shows that today’s coronavirus deaths are part of a long history of illness being as deadly as war, or more so: The 1918 flu killed about six times the Americans killed in World War I, and, in fact, two-thirds of Civil War deaths are believed to be due to disease. It is now the last remaining incident of mass casualties that remains worse than the toll of COVID-19.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com and Chris Wilson at chris.wilson@time.com