Covid Numbers Can Be All-Consuming. Here's How To Deal With Them

Experts explain how to stay informed and make sense of the data without feeling too overwhelmed.

Living through a pandemic means daily exposure to Covid-19 news, surging cases, and an ever rising death toll across the UK and the world.

Each new figure represents the individual bereavements of so many families, but as the numbers rise to previously unthinkable levels, they can be distressing and confusing to everyone, whether or not you’ve lost anyone close to you.

Daily, weekly and monthly death figures are a stark reminder of the dangers of Covid-19, and the reason why we are being asked to follow rules and accept ongoing restrictions to our lives. Grim milestones, such as when the global death toll topped one million and the UK currently having the highest Covid death rate in the world, stop us in our tracks – even as life goes on.

It’s easy to get sucked into number watching, doom-scrolling data and an addiction to watching graphs rise and fall – and it can feel overwhelming.

So what’s the best way to stay informed and make sense of the numbers without letting them totally consume us?

Focus on what we do know

Speculation is at an all-time high – in conversations among friends and family, in government updates and interviews, and across the media – because the pandemic is an ever-changing situation. No wonder coronavirus anxiety levels are through the roof and our brains are feeling a little frazzled right now.

“The important thing is to put everything into context. Focus on what we do know and not on what we don’t know,” psychologist Dr Rose Aghdami, who specialises in anxiety and resilience, tells HuffPost UK. “Although the pandemic is very central to our lives, it’s still only part of our lives.”

Recognise what we can and can’t control. “We might not be able to control the spread of the virus except in our very immediate surroundings, but we can control how we respond to it, and one of those aspects could be that we decide to minimise or at least reduce the amount of exposure to all of this very confusing data,” she advises.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story

Obsessing and getting caught up with figures and graphs is no good for anyone’s mental health, especially when it’s difficult to know exactly what those numbers mean.

Data that tells us where we’re currently at with the pandemic is important in for government policy-making – and for holding that policy to account – and the numbers represent a daily reality for those working on the medical front-line. But they don’t come with an easy users’ guide – it’s the work of professionals to analyse and interpret them. Health officials also warn that headline figures can be statistically flawed and inaccurate, due to a percentage of coronavirus deaths not being officially classified.

Death figures reported daily in the UK are of hospital cases where a person dies with the coronavirus in their body – Covid-19 is a notifiable disease, so cases must be reported. However, there are other facts to be taken into account, such as whether the virus is present but not the main cause of death – in other words, if that person died from something else.

We’re still learning about Covid-19

“There’s no miracle going to happen and save us from Covid deaths,“says Professor Daniel Altmann, Department of Medicine, Imperial College. “The virus is here to stay.”

There is progress from last year when the pandemic was unknown and emerging. We now have vaccines ready to be rolled out, but even with an end in sight, there’s still a long way off before we can return to normal.

Professor Altmann adds, “Our immunity hasn’t increased [but] our clinical acumen to deal with it has progressed somewhat. So you’d hope that the outcome of people hospitalised might be getting better and better with time.”

Anxiety and fatigue are both natural reactions

“It’s okay to feel confused and shocked when we process confusing information and to hear saddening news from all these families and individuals affected by the deaths,” says Dr Aghdami.

Equally, it’s important to acknowledge that Covid fatigue is a “totally normal and real thing,” she adds. “Shutting off from the figures can be instinctive.”

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The ongoing nature of the pandemic, combined with no obvious light at the end of the tunnel, can desensitise and dull people’s sense of shock. Simply put, our brains have got used to hearing about deaths to the point where the higher the number and the steep the graph curve, the less it registers emotionally.

Whatever your reaction – anxiety, sadness or fatigue (and we all experience a range of these) – don’t judge yourself. “These emotions are normal responses to an abnormal situation,” says Dr Aghdami. “We should keep in mind that we’re allowed to feel hopeful and enjoy what we have in the moment.”

Take Covid-19 seriously enough to stay safe

“The main question we’ve all been talking about is: ‘How do we grapple with lockdown fatigue?’ Because it is going to cost us lives,” says Dr Altmann. “I don’t know the magic answer on the ways in which people grapple with it, but shouting louder and terrorising people isn’t the way forward.”

These are challenging times. Lockdown and social distancing has prevented those bereaved from being able to mourn properly. Many family members of victims have found their grief put on hold because they can’t attend funerals, be there for one another, or visit memorials that have yet to be built.

At the same time, while the death toll is high, a lot of people in the UK haven’t experienced the direct loss of a loved one or know anyone affected in their circles. This can make a big and grave number feel far removed and distant.

Too much disassociation isn’t helpful, says Dr Altmann. “I think some people perceive that because they’re not an elderly person, it won’t affect them.”

However, we naturally gravitate to protecting ourselves, our families, and our immediate communities, and if we follow the necessary precautions – from mask-wearing and hand-washing to social distancing and quarantining where necessary – we’ll all be reducing the spread of Covid-19.

“The pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and it’s an ongoing process,” says Dr Aghdami – but these measures do make a difference. “Judging from previous pandemics and history, we should know that it is only temporary and time-limited. Things will eventually come to an end or gradually get better.”

Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.