We’ve all made mistakes during the pandemic: from Fauci pooh-poohing masks in the spring of 2020 to Alex Ber*nson being wrong about—well, basically everything. I’ve made plenty of errors along the way (an early preference for handwashing over facemasks was one of them). But one of my earliest and wrongest assumptions has stuck with me for over a year, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it now.
Way back in March 2020, I wrote a Long Version titled “The coronavirus disaster hasn’t happened yet.” (I’ve embedded a link to that issue below.) I think the overall argument of the piece—that ending the lockdowns at that point, as the worst was clearly still ahead of us—has aged pretty well. But in the middle of the piece, I made an error. Noting recent studies predicting that, absent continued efforts at mitigation, as many as 2.2 million Americans could face imminent deaths, I wrote:
These COVID-19 estimates describe an unimaginable catastrophe across one of the biggest countries in the world in the next few weeks.
Anyone who tells you we will simply shrug off even a fraction as many deaths as a “sacrifice,” as Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick and Glenn Beck have said, has no idea what they’re talking about, is a sociopath, or both. Anyone who thinks that coercing millions of people to hasten their own and their loved ones’ deaths will do anything but further destroy the economy is either stupid or has a plan to get rich on the side.
That eye-popping number was not the mistake, I don’t think. As I noted at the time, that upper bound was a worst-case scenario—what could result if, as then-President Trump was out there demanding, the country was “opened up and just rarin’ to go by Easter.” Rather, what I’m still struggling with was my insistence that Americans, on the whole, would not “simply shrug off even a fraction as many deaths.” Over 600,000 more Americans have since died of COVID-19. And, the howls of right-wingers and professional contrarians notwithstanding, that is likely an undercount: a recent Lancet study using excess mortality models estimated that as many as 766,111 Americans died of COVID as of May. Many others are now struggling with chronic aftereffects of the disease.
Yet we have, collectively, shrugged it off. Walking around an American city today, even in a resolutely blue “in this house we believe science is real”-type neighborhood, one does not come away with the feeling that a chunk of the population roughly the size of Seattle has been wiped mercilessly off the face of the Earth in the last eighteen months. The news media is neither enervated by a sense of mourning nor energized by a resulting sense of shared purpose. The poll-knowers at FiveThirtyEight doubt the ongoing catastrophe even had much of an effect on the 2020 election one way or another, despite the fact that only one of the two parties was committed to flouting all public safety measures.
Conversations about coronavirus, at least those that I’m aware of, tend to be far more focused on restrictions, vaccination mandates, and the economic cost—with the massive and growing death toll shunted off to a matter of supporting concern, at best. Until the Delta variant reared its head, and in some corners still today, people are already talking about the pandemic as if it is over.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the way the virus kills—out of sight, in beds and ICUs. Or whom it is killing: the elderly, infirm, and in disproportionate numbers Black, Latino, and poor people. Perhaps is a result of the relatively slow, repetitive drag of the crisis, in a culture fundamentally addicted to action and novelty. Maybe we are following our leaders, especially those on the right who have all but demanded that their followers deny, downplay, and otherwise ignore the human costs of the pandemic. Or maybe we are in fact a nation of sociopaths. I really can’t say.
What concerns me most about this blitheness is what it augurs for the future: both of the still-ongoing COVID crisis, and in the face of the biggest public health crisis of all: climate change. Just as I thought a mass pandemic death event would be unignorable, I also long assumed that once climate change events were too obvious to brush off—once killer heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods were upon us—that people everywhere would be jolted out of our quiescence, and both take and demand major action and systemic change. Yet that hasn’t proven to be the case either. Climate change will also primarily threaten, especially in its next stages, the same groups as COVID: disadvantaged racial minorities, those with disabilities, the working class, and poor. If we can shrug off the deaths of a few hundred thousand, who’s to say we can’t shrug off a couple million, or more?
Maybe I’m being too hasty. It’s possible to imagine that, once the crisis is over and the final numbers tallied, the great sense of loss and bereavement will finally set in, and we will all have a belated reckoning. I hope that’s the case. Because the last question I’m left with is what happens to a society that doesn’t deal with a collective trauma, in which millions who have suffered personal loss are essentially told to get over it and move on; a society where the denial and blameshifting never stop. It’s hard for me to imagine that many good things can come from a situation like that, much less that such a society can hope to meet the collective challenges to come. But again, who knows. I’ve been wrong about these things before.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. Preorder it now at your local bookstore. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.