On Wednesday, the bells of the National Cathedral began ringing, and they didn’t stop for one hour, 15 minutes, and 55 seconds—tolling 800 times in all. Listening to it, I found myself drowning in sudden, immense grief: Each ringing of a bell was still reverberating when the next one started. It was such a brief time to honor a life. And then with horrifying clarity I remembered: The tolls didn’t represent one person’s life. Each bell tolled for a thousand lives lost to Covid-19. And they just kept rolling.
Exactly one year before, I’d listened to the same bells ringing 300 times for 300,000 Americans, before sitting down at my desk to write a year-end piece looking toward the future: How could we avoid these mistakes in the year to come? How could we move beyond such an immense pain?
And now here we are. We are all tired. Beyond tired. Some of us don’t care about the virus or the pandemic; some of us never did. Some of us care so intently, it’s changed who we are, how we think, how we look at the world and our place in it.
For Erin, a physician assistant in a large Midwestern university health system who asked me not to identify her to keep her family safe, it feels like she is living in two different realities. “It is constant whiplash. I go from what is effectively war-zone medicine when I’m on shift to just a sea of faces,” she told me, with no one wearing masks or taking any precautions.
At work, Erin doesn’t have time to eat or drink or use the bathroom. An elderly woman recently came into the emergency department needing ICU-level care; they intubated her there, in Emergency. The woman was still waiting for a bed when Erin left work 30 hours later. Ambulances filled with patients circle the city because no hospitals have room for them. There is no room at larger hospitals to transfer the sickest patients. They’ll soon start seeing patients in beds lining the hallways, but that won’t help with the shortages of doctors, physician assistants, nurses, respiratory therapists, techs, and janitors. Erin has had the families of patients threaten her when she delivers the Covid diagnosis—insisting the virus isn’t real or that it needs to be treated with the latest form of quack medicine.
On Wednesday, the same day the National Cathedral memorialized 800,000 dead, Erin went to the store, where a woman leaned past her to reach for something. Erin explained that she works with Covid-19 patients; could she give her a little space? The woman laughed in her face.
“They literally believe that it’s not going to happen to them,” Erin said. Sometimes, even when they arrive in the hospital for her to treat them, they still don’t believe it. “It’s absolutely bizarre seeing people living their life, pretending 800,000 Americans haven’t died.”
But it’s the hardest to talk to people she knows, the friends and family who act as though the pandemic is over or as though it was never a problem to begin with, Erin said. “I don’t have the words to tell you what it’s like, seeing what you see every day at work. And then everybody else, people that you’re related to, are like, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
In a national magazine this past week, one Michigan resident wrote, glibly, about how he and others in his community don’t care about the pandemic. No one takes precautions, he said—that’s for the “managerial class” of out-of-touch coastal elites. It was a misogynistic, sometimes outright bizarre screed that should never have been published; in addition to several inaccuracies, it failed to mention that Michigan is in the middle of an acute crisis and the hospitals have been overflowing for weeks. It was met with understandable outrage frustration.
But it hit a nerve in part because it was wrapped around a kernel of truth: Some people don’t care.
We are all psychologically “done” with this virus, even though the virus is far from finished with us. But the ability to stop caring—the privilege of never caring in the first place—has clear eugenics undertones. There’s no way to insist that you, personally, are actually “done” with this virus without broadcasting a blatant and reprehensible disregard for everyone who will become disabled or die in the days, weeks, and years to come: children who don’t yet qualify for vaccines or whose parents are still hesitant; cancer and transplant patients who receive shot after shot and still never mount a protective response; the elderly who have already died in outrageous numbers during this pandemic; those with chronic illnesses; the people who do everything they can to avoid Covid-19 and then die of another cause waiting for care in overwhelmed hospitals.
Someone recently asked me if omicron was going to be the “big one” and, if so, what that would look like—would hospitals collapse? But hospitals are already collapsing, I said. I didn’t understand the question. We are already here, in the world that we feared. People with strong immune systems or who have managed to escape the virus’s ravages through privilege or luck, and who haven’t had to visit the emergency room or Covid ward in the past year, just don’t see it. And they don’t understand that their own personal experience isn’t a reliable indicator for evaluating the pandemic as a whole.
“I have never, never seen it this bad,” Erin said. “We’re at our breaking point now.… We are stretched so thin, there’s nothing left.” And their cases right now are predominantly delta; omicron hasn’t yet taken root. “It’s apocalyptical here. And we’re not even at the peak. January is going to be the absolute worst.” Other health care workers have told reporters all over the country the same thing. In the past two years, I have interviewed scores of such workers for articles about Covid-19’s progression. I’ve never before heard from so many people, in so many different states, about how very bad things are, and how much worse they might get.
Erin talks like she works: quickly, efficiently. But when I ask her what it’s like—how it feels to know people have just given up—to her own surprise, she breaks down in tears. “We’re like the walking wounded. It’s just all the wounds are on the inside,” she said. “There’s a certain moral injury that comes with pretending that you are fine, when it’s not fine. And I’m just so tired of having to pretend like we’re fine.”
But she doesn’t know what else to say to convince everyone around her to take the pandemic seriously. Nothing has worked. “They’ve been lied to,” Erin said. “There’s so much misinformation—purposeful misinformation. There’s just people flat-out lying.”
Erin isn’t sure how much longer she can do this. But she can’t leave; it’s her job. Besides, she said, “if I left, who would take over? There isn’t anybody.”
December 2021 feels in many ways like March 2020. Once again, we are facing an incomprehensible wave of Covid cases, only now people are proudly proclaiming they don’t care. And I believe them. People I know, people I love, stopped caring long ago. They lie about getting vaccinated. They lie about being around Covid-positive people because they want or need to go to work, and they don’t have any more sick leave. Or they got vaccinated, and now they say they don’t have to care, because this problem was caused by “them”—the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” It’s not their fault. They invite me to their holiday parties—don’t worry; everyone but the kids should be all vaccinated!
There were people forced back to work by unemployment benefits ending and threats of eviction. There were workers, deemed essential back when more people cared, forced into workplaces with no guaranteed protections. One in 100 Americans over the age of 65 have died from Covid-19 so far. How many more died from related causes—surgeries or checkups that were put on hold amid concerns of contagion?
In 1623, in the final decade of his life, the poet John Donne was stricken with fever, an illness that brought his own mortality into sharp focus. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” he wrote; “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Something else happened in 1623. A plague outbreak began in northern Europe and spread through the region. It became known as the Second Pandemic, a recurrence of the massive losses to the Black Death from centuries earlier; a reminder that even when we think we’re done, there is so much that can still happen.
Here is what I didn’t understand when I heard the bells last year: They do not only toll in memory of those we have lost. They warn of those to come. And now we have 800,000 fewer Americans to listen.