A grim milestone

100,000 dead from COVID-19, so why isn’t America a nation in mourning?

Wednesday, America passed an unimaginable milestone—100,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, there will be lots of media coverage.

But this defining moment again raises the question: Why aren’t we a nation in mourning?

Is it because we have a president who seems incapable of empathy, who brags about what a great job he’s doing and who prefers to celebrate other numbers?

“Stock Market up BIG, DOW crosses 25,000. S&P 500 over 3000,” he tweeted Tuesday. “States should open up ASAP. The Transition to Greatness has started, ahead of schedule. There will be ups and downs, but next year will be one of the best ever!”

The national mood would be very different if we had a president who united us in collective grief.

Is it because the pandemic has become so politicized? Polls show that Democrats and Republicans not only disagree on how President Trump is handling the crisis, but also on social distancing and wearing masks, the pace of reopening businesses and on whether government should spend more.

There’s even a partisan divide on the accuracy of the official death count. (The one kept by Johns Hopkins University is widely cited). While some Republicans say the count is being inflated to make Trump look bad, many Democrats believe it’s too low because people are dying without being tested for COVID-19. At the same time, Pew Research Center found that more than 80% of deaths have been in congressional districts represented by Democrats.

Or is it because—to prevent more infections—there have been very few public funerals and memorial services? What if TV news shows were featuring weeping families every day?

Maybe this will change as more funerals are allowed. In California, which has recorded more than 3,800 COVID-19 deaths and reached 100,000 confirmed cases on Wednesday, public health officials announced Monday that services with as many as 100 people can go ahead, with local approval and safety precautions.

Is it because so many Americans have been laid off and suffered economic hardships, many of us are feeling depressed and nearly all of us have had to change our daily lives due to stay-at-home orders? Maybe it’s easier to mourn people we don’t know when we’re not dealing with our own problems. Or as states reopen, maybe people would rather do anything that’s closer to normal, even have fun on the beach.

Or is it because there have been so many deaths over so many days that we’re all just numb to the fact that each number is a real person, with friends, family and loved ones?

The death toll is unrelenting, on cable news screens around the clock, or names filling the entire front page of the New York Times. Maybe the numbers are just too big to wrap our heads around, especially if we don’t personally know someone taken by COVID-19.

It’s a combination of all these reasons, most likely.

Yet, contrast what’s happening now with America’s response after 9/11. The nation was united in its grief, and then its resolve. Nearly 20 years later, still seared in our memories are the solemn ceremonies when the body of a New York firefighter or police officer was carried out of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.

And that was after 3,000 deaths. We nearly had that many in a single day from COVID-19 during the peak in April. The final, terrible death toll could be far higher than 100,000, especially if states are reopening too soon and there’s a second wave in the fall and winter.

“Maybe the numbers are just too big to wrap our heads around, especially if we don’t personally know someone taken by COVID-19.”

It’s fitting that we reached this terrible landmark so close to Memorial Day. Some, including Trump, like to compare the pandemic to a war. If it is, we have only won early battles and still face many more tests to defeat a stubborn and unforgiving enemy. And we have our war dead, even if they’re not buried under rows and rows of white crosses in national cemeteries.

So if we’re not going to mourn them properly, the least we can do is keep a safe distance, wear masks, get tested when necessary, take the vaccine when it’s safe and effective—and do everything we can so all these deaths are not in vain.

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