How did this Level of Death Become Normal?Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, individualism, medical history, COVID-19
The united states reported more deaths from COVID-19 last Friday than deaths from Hurricane Katrina, more on any two recent weekdays than deaths during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more last month than deaths from flu in a bad season, and more in two years than deaths from HIV during the four decades of the AIDS epidemic. At least 953,000 Americans have died from COVID, and the true toll is likely even higher because many deaths went uncounted. COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer, which are both catchall terms for many distinct diseases. The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination. On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as “incalculable.” Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?
Many countries have been pummeled by the coronavirus, but few have fared as poorly as the U.S. Its death rate surpassed that of any other large, wealthy nation—especially during the recent Omicron surge. The Biden administration placed all its bets on a vaccine-focused strategy, rather than the multilayered protections that many experts called for, even as America lagged behind other wealthy countries in vaccinating (and boosting) its citizens—especially elderly people, who are most vulnerable to the virus. In a study of 29 high-income countries, the U.S. experienced the largest decline in life expectancy in 2020 and, unlike much of Europe, did not bounce back in 2021. It was also the only country whose lowered life span was driven mainly by deaths among people under 60. Dying from COVID robbed each American of, on average, nine years of life at the lowest end of estimates and 17 at the highest. As a whole, U.S. life expectancy fell by two years—the largest such decline in almost a century. Neither World War II nor any of the flu pandemics that followed it dented American longevity so badly.
To grapple with the aftermath of a disaster, there must first be an aftermath. But the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, and “feels so big that we can’t put our arms around it anymore,” Peek told me. Thinking about it is like staring into the sun, and after two years, it is no wonder people are looking away. As tragedy becomes routine, excess deaths feel less excessive. Levels of suffering that once felt like thunderclaps now resemble a metronome’s clicks—the background noise against which everyday life plays. The same inexorable inuring happened a century ago: In 1920, the U.S. was hit by a fourth wave of the great flu pandemic that had begun two years earlier, but even as people died in huge numbers, “virtually no city responded,” wrote John M. Barry, a historian of the 1918 flu. “People were weary of influenza, and so were public officials. Newspapers were filled with frightening news about the virus, but no one cared.”
Fatalism has also been stoked by failure. Two successive administrations floundered at controlling the virus, and both ultimately shunted the responsibility for doing so onto individuals. Vaccines brought hope, which was dashed as uptake stagnated, other protections were prematurely rolled back, and the Delta variant arrived. During that wave, parts of the South and Midwest experienced “a shocking level of death and transmission that was on par with the worst of that previous winter wave,” Robinson said, and even so the policy response was anemic at best. As Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University, told me in September 2020, if salvation never comes, “people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”
Richard Keller, a medical historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that much of the current pandemic rhetoric—the premature talk of endemicity; the focus on comorbidities; the from-COVID-or-with-COVID debate—treats COVID deaths as dismissible and “so inevitable as to not merit precaution,” he has written. “Like gun violence, overdose, extreme heat death, heart disease, and smoking, [COVID] becomes increasingly associated with behavioral choice and individual responsibility, and therefore increasingly invisible.” We don’t honor deaths that we ascribe to individual failings, which could explain, Keller argues, why national moments of mourning have been scarce. There have been few pandemic memorials, save some moving but temporary art projects. Resolutions to turn the first Monday of March into a COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day have stalled in the House and Senate. Instead, the U.S. is engaged in what Keller calls “an active process of forgetting.” If safety is now a matter of personal responsibility, then so is remembrance.
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