At the start of the pandemic, in late March 2020, President Trump held a White House briefing during which his top advisers presented their official COVID-19 death projections. In dark tones, they projected that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die from the disease if we followed reasonable social distancing and other mitigation guidelines.
Two hundred and forty thousand! It was an inconceivable amount of death. Four times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Eighty times the death toll in the September 11 attacks.
“As grim as that number is, we have to prepare 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 difficult two weeks.”
Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
Today, two years later, we all know how it worked. We did not behave as we should. We haven’t seen the light after two weeks. And we didn’t have 100,000 dead, nor 240,000 dead either.
Instead, we are now closing in on a million deaths. As of Sunday, the total number of COVID deaths in the United States stood at 986,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 400 more Americans dying every day.
Our cumulative national mortality rate of more than 200 deaths per 100,000 population is higher than that of any other large, wealthy, industrialized country.
Yes, there are positive signs. We have vaccines. We have reminders. Hospitalizations and deaths are down from their peak.
But this virus does not seem to be finished with us. In the United States and abroad, new variants continue to emerge. Delta has retreated and Omicron is well past the high point reached in mid-January, but here are the XE, BA.2, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 sub-variants. In California, the number of COVID cases is rising, in part due to the relaxation of indoor masking rules and vaccination verification requirements.
Worse still, we continue to fight among ourselves over mask requirements, whether to open or close, how to protect our schoolchildren, the benefits of vaccination. Untruths continue to spread on social networks. Science and health remain senselessly politicized.
Admittedly, it is a confusing moment. The danger possesses attenuated. And now, even liberal Democrats who hate Trump, revere Fauci, and have uncomplainingly followed every mitigation rule are really tired of hiding from this disease. We all want our lives back.
So we tell ourselves that there is a continuous level of death with which we can live. This COVID is like the flu – endemic, not pandemic. That we’re vaxxed, and better yet boosted, and so we’re kind of, kind of, invulnerable.
But as eager as we are to see this 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% received even one reminder. (In LA County alone, there are about 1.7 million people over the age of 5 who haven’t even had a single injection.) On the other hand, as long as the virus is raging anywhere , the possibility of new, more dangerous mutations remains real.
If we are 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 meaningful perspective. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon argues that people suffer from “psychic numbness”, in which our understanding and empathy decline as the death toll rises. It is the reformulation by an academic of the phrase often attributed to Josef Stalin: “A death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
But let me try to provide some context.
Heart disease killed nearly 700,000 Americans in 2020 and cancer killed just over 602,000, suggesting that over the past two years they each likely killed more people than COVID.
COVID in 2020 was the third leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020, more people died from COVID than from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia combined.
Not only are there 1 million more people than the Vietnam War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 dead, but it’s more than the estimated 750,000 dead over the four years of the Civil War, a bloody conflict that permanently marked the United States.
In 2020, 38,824 people died in traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
About 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 flu epidemic, according to the CDC. (An estimated 50 million people have died worldwide.)
What Slovic would no doubt want us to remember (and Stalin might want us to forget) is that each of those millions of COVID deaths represents a real person, with a real life ending prematurely. Additionally, a study has shown that for every person who dies from COVID, nine bereaved family members are left behind.
At this point, many of us know someone who has passed away from this terrible disease. Statistics show that about 75% of the dead are over 65 years old. Those who died are also disproportionately immunocompromised or unvaccinated. Disproportionately Black. Disproportionately working-class.
Some 200,000 American children are estimated to 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 dead? It’s probably an undercount.
So how will these years be remembered in the future when or if we come out on the other side? A blip? A world historic catastrophe? Will we remember how we stayed at home, how it turned us against each other, how we so woefully failed to protect ourselves?
The COVID years can resonate in national memory like 9/11 — or be largely forgotten. We could tell Great Pandemic stories to our grandchildren or maybe by then pandemics will be a part of life.
These days I feel a bit more relaxed – socializing more, dining out, traveling by plane. I enjoy the freedom.
But I feel like it’s not over yet.