News & Politics

How Can We Even Understand 500,000 Covid Deaths?

Today, President Biden and Washington National Cathedral will mark a number far too big to contemplate.

Arlington National Cemetery. Photograph by Tim Brown/iStock.

The US death toll from Covid-19 will pass 500,000 Monday. That number is so monumental it’s difficult to visualize: Picture the population of Kansas City vanishing from the earth. Half a million standard US bricks stacked upon one another would form a tower almost 18 miles high. Imagine Britain losing as many troops as it did on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 26 times in a row.

The Washington Post tries to map the number to our brains in more ways: There are more than 400,000 people buried in Arlington Cemetery, for example, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would have to rise to 87 feet tall to accommodate 500,000 names. Sunday’s New York Times front page represented the deaths with dots in a column that grows darker and darker.

As it did for previous Covid milestones, Washington National Cathedral will ring its mourning bell Monday evening, beginning at 5 PM. The bell will toll 500 times—once for every thousand people who died.

President Biden will hold a candle-lighting ceremony and observe a moment of silence at the White House at 6:15 PM. Moments of silence weren’t exactly his predecessor’s forte: Asked about the death toll of the disease last year, President Trump observed, “it is what it is.”

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.