If a terrorist attack took 200,000 American lives, the country would mobilize for war. Yet as the U.S. death toll for COVID-19 approaches that awful number, the nation’s response is so fractured that it can be hard to tell anything is seriously amiss. The country could do many things to stem the damage wrought by the coronavirus, but the current grim milestone calls for a simpler and more natural response: grief.
Take a moment to reflect on the enormity of our loss. If the pandemic were a war, it would be the third-costliest in U.S. history. It has killed more Americans than all our combined wars but the two world wars and the Civil War. That it has not yet eclipsed the bloodletting of those conflicts should be of scant comfort; give it time.
Better yet, don’t. It is past time for a clear, unified response to this crisis. Each of the dead leaves a gap in our society, an empty seat at the breakfast table or a hole in the fabric of a family’s life. Even those who died without close friends or family deserved the respect of their fellow citizens, as well as the care and protection of their government. What many of them got instead, individually and collectively, was indifference. Even a measure as simple as wearing masks when out among the public has proved contentious and controversial. President Donald Trump could drain the fever out of the opposition by setting an example and wearing one himself; instead he most often goes without, and mocks his opponent, Joe Biden, for doing the right thing.
For too many Americans, the simple expedient of wearing masks is perceived as a judgment call — something done out of an overabundance of caution, or blind obedience to liberal dogma. Drive down University Avenue on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota and you’re likely to see students doing what they traditionally do: enjoying the weather and the confidence that comes with youth. They gather without masks, with no regard for social distancing. They are aware of the pandemic, but too many do not appear to take its dangers seriously.
And why should they? Trump and his supporters have managed to malign the scientists and marginalize the science. Apparently contaminated by political pressure, the once-respected CDC has become a font of conflicting signals: The virus spreads via aerosols, and then it doesn’t; asymptomatic people who’ve been exposed don’t need to be tested, and then they do.
Passing 200,000 deaths, more than 2,000 of them in Minnesota, is an occasion to contemplate the abyss. This pandemic shows no sign of disappearing. Educations are being disrupted, surgeries postponed, funerals and weddings and careers deferred. The economic pain is widespread.
And a national leader who cannot bring himself even to wear a mask in the public interest should ask himself why he wanted to be president in the first place.