In the United States, we measure weight in pounds, distance in miles, and catastrophic losses in 9/11s. At press time, Covid-19 had claimed 88,754 victims in the U.S., a number that will surely be greater by the time you read this sentence. By our all-American metric, that’s nearly thirty 9/11s. We have, by far, the greatest number of Covid fatalities in the world. As we are so fond of chanting at the sporting events we won’t be attending en masse again before 2022: We’re number one!
These deaths are gutting friend groups, hollowing out families, and leveling communities, each individual loss producing a blast radius of pain, trauma, and despair. With nearly 90,000 dead, the total number of Americans grieving at this moment is vast. And yet we have done nothing, as a nation, to mourn alongside each other. Why has there been no collective national remembrance for our Covid dead?
Where’s the official memorial service for a country united by grief, eulogized by our leaders? Where’s the televised tribute, the crowdsourced In Memoriam scroll, the synchronized virtual vigil? Where is the roll call of names each morning or night, read by some person in a position of authority, to signal to the rest of us that these individuals are not mere statistics, that their lives had innate dignity and worth? The absence feels especially profound given our inability to do what we’d ordinarily do after a death: gather with our surviving loved ones and comfort one another in person.
The closest thing we’ve got to any shared remembrance is the obituary section, which the smattering of newspapers still standing are doing their best to deliver. Our Covid dead don’t just die. They disappear.
It starts at the top. At this point, it feels genuinely insane to fathom what a “normal” president would be doing right now. Such a person feels as far away as the idea of a crowded party: Sure, we used to have them, but it is difficult to conceive that we ever will again.
Has President Trump ever demonstrated a capacity for empathy? It is wild to imagine him trying to eulogize the casualties of Covid. What would he say? If his daily press briefings are any indication, he’s as likely as not to skip the perfunctory offering of thoughts and prayers and launch straight into a live infomercial for a vertically integrated pillow company.
Before such a surreal commemoration could take place, Trump would first need to acknowledge the gravity of this still-unfolding tragedy—in other words, he would need to speak honestly about the people who have died. This is not something he has ever been particularly inclined to do. Perhaps you recall his denial that 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a number he insisted was “done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
Why would he not amplify from his podium facts that are publicly available? Statistics that, if anything, understate the complete toll of the virus: a tally that does not include deaths of victims trapped with their domestic abusers due to stay-at-home orders or those who have died by suicide, their mental health devastated by the impact of the outbreak. If Trump were to articulate the scale of death wrought by the pandemic, he would inevitably invite some dot-connecting as to why, exactly, Americans’ survival rates under Covid have plummeted while so many nations’ have at least plateaued.
Leaders of other Covid-afflicted nations have prioritized accurately conveying the gravity of the virus, making testing widely available, and implementing lockdown measures while cases still numbered in the single digits. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s priorities are preserving the Trump administration at the expense of everyone else. This is why, for instance, deportations are continuing unabated, even though this (predictably) is spreading the coronavirus all over Central America. “Decisions are always screened through the lens of whether or not they help Potus’s re-election,” an American official told The New Yorker. “The White House doesn’t have time for Guatemala’s bullshit. Deportations must continue.”
Mourning requires one to pause and remember; this administration is hell-bent on hurtling forward as if what is currently happening never really happened at all. The measured, reasoned warnings from public health officials, alas, obstruct the president’s fantasy of “reopening” the economy by Easter, or Memorial Day, or whatever “very soon” goalpost he points to next.
Any discussion of death would surely remind citizens what is at stake should we all abandon the safety measures we adopted in March. Hard to rally for a trip to the mall when you understand what’s at risk if you go.
In the parlance of our broken health care system, Covid is devastating in the U.S. because of our national preexisting conditions, which are at once far more sinister and mundane than a novel virus. The president’s boundless cruelty and ignorance (please don’t inject bleach or pop hydroxychloroquine) are enabled by his administration’s incompetence (see: the crack team of volunteers, led by Jared Kushner, whose pathetic search for vital medical supplies was an expensive, futile shitshow) and avarice (never forget the senators who found time to sell off millions of dollars in stocks before the coronavirus made the markets crash). And those, in turn, are aided and abetted by staggering civic indifference from elected officials who ran for office on “pro-life” platforms only to turn around and demand the rest of us be willing to sacrifice our parents and grandparents on the altar of the Dow.
It’s not just that Trump himself refuses to lead the nation in mourning (and, really, can you imagine what it would look like if he tried?). By downplaying the devastation, Trump has led a great many people to believe that Covid is no worse than the flu, or that blue states are manufacturing a crisis to ensure he’s a single-term president—that there is nothing to see here. It’s hard to mourn collectively when a good chunk of the country refuses to acknowledge that there is a crisis in the first place.
There’s also the fact that the pandemic is far from over. One could make the case that we’re in triage mode. That all our resources need to be spent on getting tending to the sick, researching a vaccine. That we can grieve our dead only in hindsight, when we’re confident the worst has passed.
The strain is as much emotional as economic. We’re so tired. Aren’t you tired? Exhausted by loneliness and vigilance and fear, our eyeballs strained from hours with our screens, bodies and brains burned out from Cloroxing all our groceries and then launching a fevered search for a CVS in a 30-mile radius that isn’t sold out of Clorox wipes because we are always running low. Parents are trying to run Zoom schools for their eight-year-olds. People living alone have not so much as high-fived another soul since before St. Patrick’s Day. It feels like more than enough work to swing from one hour to the next like they’re monkey bars, to not let yourself really sit with the fact that we are living through the plot of a movie so scary we’d want to watch it with our hands over our eyes.
Still, there are options here that cost zero dollars and require little effort. We could lower all the flags to half-mast, as some states have already done. We could have a national minute of silence at the same time each day or week, a quiet counterpoint to the 7 p.m. cheers and sirens for health care workers.
But we are much more readily galvanized to cheer each other up; to fundraise for first responders and out-of-work bartenders; to FaceTime into virtual commencements and socially distant proms; to support local businesses so that, when all this is over and we stumble into the sunlight again, our streets aren’t just one long strip of Chase banks and Amazon drops. We are far better equipped to take all that action than to be still with our sorrow, much more comfortable saying that it will all be OK in the end than admitting that things are very bad and will remain so for far longer than we think we can bear. That you might not know someone who has died, yet. But by the time this is over, you might.