At the start of the pandemic, in late March 2020, President Trump held a briefing at the White House in which his top advisers presented their official projections of deaths from COVID-19. Grimly, they predicted that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die from the disease if we followed reasonable guidelines for social distancing and other preventative measures.
Two hundred forty thousand! It was an inconceivable number of deaths. Four times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Eighty times the number of those who died in the September 11 attacks.
“As impressive as that number is, we should be prepared for it,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Trump added that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” if we behaved as we should, but that “we are going to have a very hard two weeks.”
Today, two years later, we all know how that turned out. We do not behave as we should. We did not see the light after two weeks. And we didn’t have 100,000 deaths, or 240,000.
Instead, we are now approaching a million deaths. As of Sunday, the total number of COVID deaths in the United States was 986,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 400 more Americans dying every day.
Our national cumulative mortality rate of more than 200 deaths per 100,000 people is higher than that of any other large, wealthy, industrialized nation.
Yes, there are some positive signs. We have vaccines. We have reinforcements. Hospitalizations and deaths are down a lot from their peak.
But this virus does not seem to have disappeared. In the United States and abroad, new variants continue to appear. Delta has receded and Omicron is well past the high point it reached in mid-January, but the XE sub-variants, BA.2, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 are coming. In California, the number of COVID cases is on the rise again, in part due to relaxation of indoor mask rules and vaccination verification requirements.
Worst of all, we continue to fight each other about the requirements to wear masks, about whether to open or close, about how to protect our students, about the benefits of vaccination. Falsehoods continue to permeate social networks. Science and health continue to be senselessly politicized.
Admittedly, this is a confusing time. The danger has diminished. And by now, even the liberal Democrats who hate Trump and revere Fauci, have unquestioningly followed all the mitigation rules and are sick of hiding from this disease. We all want our lives back.
Now we try to convince ourselves that there is a level of continual death that we can live with. That COVID is like the flu: endemic, not pandemic. That we are vaccinated, and better still reinforced, and therefore we are something like invulnerable.
But as anxious as we are for this to be over, now is the time to move slowly and avoid complacency. On the one hand, only 66% of the country is fully vaccinated; only 45% have even received a booster. (In Los Angeles County alone, there are some 1.7 million people over the age of 5 who have not received even a single vaccine.) On the other hand, as long as the virus continues to rage anywhere, the possibility of new and more dangerous mutations remains real.
If we’re careful, maybe we can slow down the process and prevent 1 million from becoming 2 million.
It is difficult for humans to put such a large number of deaths into perspective. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon argues that people experience “psychic numbness,” in which both our understanding and empathy decline as the death toll rises. It is an academic reaffirmation of the phrase that is usually attributed to Joseph Stalin: “A death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
But let me offer some context.
Heart disease killed nearly 700,000 Americans in 2020 and cancer killed just over 602,000, suggesting that in the past two years each probably killed more people than COVID.
COVID in 2020 was the third leading cause of death in the US In 2020, more people died from COVID than from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, the flu, and pneumonia combined.
Not only is this 1 million more people than were killed in the Vietnam War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but it is more than the estimated 750,000 who were killed in the four years of the Civil War, a bloody conflict that permanently marked the United States.
In 2020, 38,824 people died in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Some 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 flu epidemic, according to the CDC. (It is estimated that 50 million people died worldwide).
What Slovic would certainly want us to remember (and Stalin would want us to forget) is that each of those millions of COVID deaths represents a real person, with a real life brought to an untimely end. In addition, a study showed that for every person who dies of COVID, there are nine heartbroken family members.
By now, many of us know someone who has died from this horrible disease. Statistics show that about 75% of the deceased are over 65 years of age. Those who have died are also disproportionately immunocompromised or unvaccinated. disproportionately black. Disproportionately working class.
An estimated 200,000 American children have lost one or both parents to the disease, according to data collected at Imperial College London.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: The million deaths is likely an undercount.
So how will these years in the future be remembered when we get out of all this? Like a pothole? A world historical catastrophe? Will we remember how we stayed home, how we stood up to each other, how we failed terribly to protect ourselves?
The COVID years can resonate in national memory like 9/11, or be forgotten. We may be telling the stories of the Great Pandemic to our grandchildren, or pandemics may be a regular part of life by then.
These days, I feel a bit more relaxed: I socialize more, I dine out, I travel by plane. I am enjoying the freedom.
But I have a feeling this is not over yet.
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