Nearly 25,000 people in Canada have died from COVID-19 and more than one million people have been infected by the virus, but experts say people have lost sight of what those numbers mean: Canadian lives.

With each COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, multiple Canadians are impacted by a wave of worry, distress and grief. But for many of those who haven’t been directly impacted by the illness, keeping up with daily case counts becomes just a blip in otherwise data-filled days.

“We can't live constantly feeling that we're in the midst of a tragedy, a catastrophe, so we block it out,” Vardit Ravitsky, professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal and chair of the COVID-19 Impact Committee of the Trudeau Foundation, told in a phone interview on Thursday.

It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced COVID-19 first hand, or through a loved one, to appreciate what is behind the numbers, she said.

“If your friends and families are hit, then you're totally there with them but when the number is 5,000 you lose the ability to put a face on it.”

And this sense of being numb to the infections and deaths has bigger implications.

“It's like we're losing our humanity, right?” she said. “The ethics there is that if we're desensitized to the loss of life then we're really losing an aspect of our humanity.”

In order for the numbers to mean something, people have to remember the background, the context of the numbers.

“A number, in and of, itself doesn't mean anything, it always means something in relation to its background,” said Francoise Baylis, bioethicist at Dalhousie University.

People, she said, have a tendency to distance themselves from mass tragedies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things I think we do as a coping mechanism, is we put emotional distance between ourselves and numbers that seem threatening and numbers that seem about things we cannot control,” she said.

As humans, we’re well-practiced at distancing ourselves from tragedies, she said.

“We're already desensitized to the loss of human life that occurs far away from us...But this is happening here. This is our neighbors. So it's sort of like a new level of being desensitized,” said Ravitsky.

“This tragedy just gets added to other tragedies, whether it's war, whether it's plague, whether it's anything else,” Baylis said.

And there comes a point where our compassion gives out.

“In many cases, both in lab studies and in field studies, we see that as the numbers go up, compassion and empathy and prosocial behavior ultimately go down,” Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of psychology and member of the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University, told in a phone interview on Friday.

Another theory is that our emotions, he added, are guided by individual situations, not statistics.

“We read an individual story about someone, you see an image, you hear their narrative. The imagery there can be very attention grabbing,” he said.

But it’s not as simple as providing personal details of the millions of people who have died from COVID-19 globally -- that can lose meaning too.

“Even if you read a dozen different individual stories where you do provide that individuating information, there's still this worry that by the time you read your 12th story, your 12th tragic narrative, it loses its impact,” he added.

Getting people to care about each other and the people behind the daily case counts will ultimately help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“When you don't feel a sense of threat to your life and to your health, you're obviously less willing to sacrifice,” said Ravitsky.

But getting people to care needs to go deeper than following public health guidelines and provincial restrictions. People want tangible results. 

“The challenge is for people to care. They have to, I think, believe that they can make a difference, or see a way in which they can advocate for a difference,” said Baylis.

It’s important to realize that being able to tune it out is a privilege in and of itself, said Baylis.

“We were never all in this together,” she added.

“We should absolutely not be turning a blind eye, absolutely be heeding the repeated calls from the director general of the WHO, who has for months been calling this a moral catastrophe.”

And privilege is causing a deeper divide among those who’ve had to face the brunt of this pandemic.

“There's obviously anger to be expected from those who have lived the past year under excruciating conditions compared to those who baked sourdough,” said Ravitsky.

But there are ways to step back from the information and gain perspective.

“So there are ways that we can protect ourselves without having to check out completely, but often that needs to be a bit more of a conscious process for us,” Lisa Moores, clinical faculty lead at Student Wellness and Counselling Centre at Memorial University told in a phone interview on Friday.

Moores suggests that if people have a tendency to shut down under the onslaught of information, to engage with that need to shut down. Setting boundaries around the type of media consumed and how much is consumed is a good place to start.

For Moores, it’s important that people don’t feel guilty for not engaging on a daily basis. It’s important for people to feel allowed to step back.

“If we want to re-engage people who have stepped out of the pandemic information stream over time, or become numb to it, it's far more effective to acknowledge that as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and give one another permission to step back when we need to without having to step out completely,” she said.

Shaming people for stepping back can just make matters worse.

“It simply does not work. If we send the message that if you don't feel the weight of this pandemic every day, every hour it means you don't care, we will simply create more isolation and suffering and alienate those who are contributing most to its resolution.”

It’s important to realize that even just following public health measures is enough right now.

“Sometimes you may not have the capacity to do anything more than follow public health measures. When you're in that place, that's enough. We can't lose sight of the fact that just doing our part, focusing on those basics day after day, is a contribution that makes a difference for everyone.”