Two hundred thousand.
Six months ago, this grim milestone we’re about to cross, the official tally of those we’ve lost to COVID-19 in this country, might have seemed unimaginable, or at least utterly intolerable.
Now that we are here, it is neither.
So think of that number another way. Imagine the entire population of Worcester was wiped off the planet, and Duxbury’s with it. Imagine erasing all of the people in Lowell, plus Lynn. Imagine all the people who live in Springfield and Arlington, gone.
This is partly the natural way of things: Humans are wired to dissociate in the face of relentless horror, as a matter of self-preservation. Our capacity to feel shock or outrage can be depleted or dulled by repetition. And the pandemic makes communal mourning — communal anything — impossible. So the public memorials that have marked other cataclysmic events have been absent, the funerals and tributes postponed, or held largely out of sight.
But there are also unnatural forces at work. Too many of those who should lead us in honoring and mourning the dead, in acknowledging the scale and humanity of these losses, are instead downplaying the pandemic. To recognize the enormity of these deaths — many of them preventable, if the federal response had been swift and powerful — is to indict the president and his acolytes. So a vast machinery dedicated to his reelection seeks to dull their impact.
If COVID deaths felt real and immediate to more of us, would we be seeing quite so many reckless high schoolers partying, forcing schools to keep kids learning at home for two extra weeks? Would we see the unhinged anti-mask protests around the country? Or that wedding in Millinocket, Maine, that has so far led to the deaths of seven poor souls who weren’t even there?
Properly recognizing the scale of this disaster does more than honor the dead: It also protects the living.
That’s why what Alex Goldstein is doing is so very vital. Back in March, Goldstein started FacesOfCOVID, a Twitter feed memorializing those we’ve lost to the disease. So far, he has put names and faces to about 2,700 of those who might otherwise remain hidden in those numbing tallies.
“When I started this, I did not in a million years imagine I would be in September and there would still be more than 1,000 people dying a day,” said Goldstein, who was a spokesman for Governor Deval Patrick and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. “The responsibility I feel to continue this is stronger now than it ever has been.”
Every morning, Goldstein wakes early and searches for stories to highlight from among the previous day’s obituaries, choosing those who properly reflect the full range of those taken by the pandemic: Black and Latino Americans; those who are younger, and otherwise healthy; folks with personalities and hobbies and quirks that make them whole people. Julie Baca, a hospital secretary who planned to retire this summer. Bishop Elijah Good, an Army veteran. Robert Wesley Brown, who loved a cappella music. So many more.
“If you spend 10 minutes on this feed, you will get a very deep understanding of just how varied and beautiful and extraordinary the American people are,” he said.
Their lives, and their deaths, belong to all of us, and they deserve to be mourned publicly. But trying to make that happen takes a toll. Goldstein, like others who stare into the pandemic’s destruction while so much of this country looks away, feels like he’s “lost his mind a little bit” sometimes.
“You see the way in which our government, and maybe even your peers, are treating this in such a cavalier fashion, and you just want to scream,” he said. “Look at these stories. How can you be complaining about your mask when 50 firefighters and paramedics and EMTs are dead?"
Hoping the deaths of the those we usually valorize will register where others mightn’t, Goldstein this week put up a video memorializing public safety workers lost to COVID. It has more than 200,000 views so far.
The sooner we truly see those lost lives, and all of them, the sooner we will save ourselves.