Half a million of our fellow Americans, dead from COVID-19.
If you’ve ever visited the Normandy American Cemetery and gazed out across the seemingly endless rows of crosses there, you know what the graves of 9,388 dead look like. Walk along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and scan the more than 58,000 names inscribed there, and you can almost imagine that many people.
But 500,000? Such a number taxes one’s ability to comprehend or conceptualize.
Here’s one measure, from National Geographic, that brings home to me the immensity of our American loss: “If measured in the skies, 500,000 is a hundred times more than all the stars visible to the naked eye.”
It would be gratifying to say that this terrible period has shown America at its best, that it has revealed the grit and resolve and discipline, the decency and charity, that we’d all like to believe lies at the core of America.
And yet, that would overlook too many disquieting truths.
As I contemplate what this country has been through, I find myself thinking about Jason Hargrove, a 50-year-old Detroit bus driver who posted a video cri de coeur after an unmasked middle-aged woman on his bus coughed four or five times without bothering to cover her mouth.
Hargrove was angry, and he had every right to be. He hadn’t said anything to the woman, but he wanted people to show some concern for those out there serving the public in the midst of the pandemic peril.
“For us to get through this and get over this, man, you all need to take this shit serious,” he said. “There’s folks dying from this. . . .”
Hargrove posted his video on March 21, 2020. A week and a half later, he died of COVID-19.
Too many Americans chose to be careless or callous, either as an attitudinal or a political statement. The college kids who couldn’t bother to stop partying. The lightweight libertarians who insisted that wearing a mask during a pandemic somehow infringed on fundamental freedoms. The detractors who mocked or verbally abused or acted balefully toward the true American patriots, those who upheld or respected the rules. The belligerents who erupted in anger when asked to abide by requirements they didn’t like. The clueless contrarians who insisted this was no worse than the flu, even after it had become obvious the transmission, hospitalization, and death rates were all significantly higher. The amateur experts who became addle-pated advocates of herd immunity, either ignorant of or unconcerned about the toll that approach would take absent vaccines.
All that was every bit as dismaying as the weak-minded conspiracy theorists who let themselves believe the pandemic was somehow a hoax. Or the partisans who claimed the danger was being hugely over-hyped to hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances.
But whether because of conspiratorialist outlook or populist resentment or their own perceived invincibility or their partisan perceptual filters or religious zealotry or other reason-resisting belief systems, too many Americans were unwilling to do what was necessary in timely fashion. And so, though many have acted in a prudent and conscientious manner, as a country we have been held hostage to selfishness, perversity, pugnacity, and stupidity.
Collectively, that rendered us a bumbling, slow-witted nation, one that could learn only from being burned, and not from either expert advice or common sense.
When this is over, we need a monument to those Americans who died.
We can’t let them be forgotten in the mental numbness that becomes a defense against a death toll on this massive a scale. But we also need to remember the lamentable behavior that afflicted America. Perhaps then, if and when something like this happens again, a new generation of Americans might avoid some measure of the national tragedy we’ve suffered.