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OPINION

Don’t look away from 800,000 dead from COVID-19

If 100,000 dead from the coronavirus was “incalculable,” how then to describe another 700,000 Americans gone?

Pallbearers, who were among only 10 allowed mourners, walked the casket for internment at the funeral for Larry Hammond, who died from the coronavirus, at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans, April 22, 2020.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

COVID-19 deaths nationwide will soon surpass 800,000. Too few will notice.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I think we would reach a point where a thousand-plus deaths a day would be normalized and met with a shrug,” Alex Goldstein, founder of Faces of COVID, told me. I first spoke to him in mid-May 2020, two months into the virus’s initial wave. He had just posted his thousandth story to @FacesofCOVID on Twitter, tweet-sized remembrances of those killed by the disease caused by the coronavirus.

By that point, more than 80,000 people had already perished. Two weeks later, as deaths surged toward 100,000, the nation seemed to buckle under the great weight of this catastrophe. In anticipation of this wretched milestone, The New York Times devoted its Sunday front page to the names of the dead: “U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS,” read the headline. “They were not simply names on a list. They were us.”

If 100,000 dead from COVID was “incalculable,” how then to describe another 700,000 Americans gone, an impossible number that is probably even higher? After a brief lull, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising again. The Delta variant continues to rage, especially in conservative states. Omicron, the latest variant, is spreading across the country.

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So has indifference.

Forget COVID fatigue — that’s so 2020. Many seem to have grown cold to the mayhem this virus is still unleashing on families and communities. The infected are now younger and sicker, and at least 120,000 children have lost parents or caregivers. Some COVID survivors struggle to fully recover since the virus can cause organ damage and make once-simple tasks into daily challenges. Yet a preoccupation with getting back to “normal” has convinced some to act like they’re done with the virus when the virus clearly isn’t done with us.

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Despite three highly effective vaccines, 2021 saw more COVID deaths than in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inflamed by the pandemic’s rancid politicization originally fueled by Donald Trump, resistance to masking protocols led to resistance to vaccines. Anti-vaxxers were already a noisy minority before this pandemic; COVID metastasized their dangerous movement.

Vaccinations that could have saved lives weren’t just ignored, they were demonized. On Fox News, its vaccinated talking heads deride vaccine efficacy and discourage others from getting their shots. Some far-right agitators have compared mandates to the Holocaust and Dr. Anthony Fauci to a Nazi doctor who conducted experiments on Jews and others in concentration camps. This isn’t just wrong. It’s ahistorical and deeply antisemitic — just as claiming mask requirements are tantamount to slavery amplifies why history needs to be taught instead of banned from classrooms.

Those lies are tenets of a death cult. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates about 90,000 deaths between June and September could have been prevented if those infected had been vaccinated. For various reasons, about 40 percent of the country remains unvaccinated. Those statistics are even more dire in low-income countries, where vaccination rates hover below 5 percent. Unless wealthy countries do whatever is necessary to boost global vaccinations, this pandemic will never end.

On Faces of COVID, Goldstein will soon post its seven-thousandth remembrance, less than 1 percent of acknowledged deaths. From a September peak of more than 151,000 followers, the Twitter account now has dipped to 149,343, perhaps a kind of barometer of waning interest in the pandemic and its relentless toll.

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“There were a lot of stories I told myself about how the pandemic would end that were fairy tales that probably served more as a coping mechanism than anything else,” Goldstein said. “To be back here again approaching the holidays with a new variant looming, millions unvaccinated, and science continuing to be villainized in the places that need it the most is just heartbreaking.”

In the nascent weeks of the pandemic, Fauci, then a member of the Trump White House coronavirus task force, said there could be 100,000 to 200,000 COVID deaths. People were horrified by what seemed a ghastly prognostication. Yet compared with where things stand and the many uncertainties that lie ahead, if such numbers had been the ceiling instead of the floor it would have been a triumph.

Here’s what is certain: This could have been prevented. Lies and tribalism overwhelmed science and logic. Once, wars were cited as signposts of mass death that we dared not cross. Those numbers were surpassed months ago. Now there is nothing comparable to COVID, a landscape of misery marked with the bodies of 800,000 fellow Americans and a craven desire to ignore the suffering that still surrounds us.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.