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Listen as the Bell Tolls

On May 27, CNN and all the other major news outlets announced it: deaths in the United States from covid-19 had surpassed the 100,000 mark. Their source was Johns Hopkins University. In other words, not fake news.

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The next day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this statement: “Reaching the milestone of 100,000 persons lost in such a short time frame is a sobering development and a heart-breaking reminder of the horrible toll of this unprecedented pandemic.”

The short time frame to which the CDC refers is from February 6 (first known U.S. death) to May 27. As of today, that toll had reached 106,000 dead Americans.

In fact, everything I’ve written up to this point is already old news. One can’t stay ahead of this gruesome stat. The body count continues ticking away as Americans return to “normal”—that is, to the so-called American Way of Life.

Which, unfortunately, includes phenomenal inequality.

And, thus it is that our racial, socioeconomic, and political divides grow deeper and wider with each fatal tick of that clock.

Resisting Temptation

Confronted with such a number—100,000-plus—the first thing one might be tempted to do is to politicize it. After all, there has been an earsplitting drumbeat of criticism leveled at the Trump Administration’s incompetence, denial, and own politicizing of the pandemic since January.

From the Republican side that would mean looking away from the immediate challenges within our own borders and instead painting a big red bull’s-eye on our big red enemy, China.

From the Democratic side, that would mean not wasting time in such distracting, base-baiting efforts and instead looking toward Washington D.C.

But I shall resist the temptation of politicization, contenting myself with this quotation by journalist David Quammen, in his piece “The Warnings” in The New Yorker (May 11), who cites “the disastrously tardy, inadequate, confused, and (for many citizens) confusing response of the federal government to covid-19, both before and after the first case.”

There’s another, perhaps harder-to-swallow reason, not to play the political blame game. Even though I’m as capable as the next New Yorker reader of heaping blame on Trump (perpetually mask-free) for his usual dismal performance as leader of the free world, I must concede he’s only the most visible of ne’er-do-wells.

Let’s put aside governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia, who in the words of The Atlantic (April 29) “abruptly reversed course on the shutdown, ending many of his own restrictions on businesses and overruling those put in place by mayors throughout the state.”

And let’s put aside right-wing media nuts like Rush Limbaugh and Owen Shroyer who as early as April were touting the need to re-open the country, according to Nick Robins-Early of The Huff-Post.

Instead, let’s look at “everyday Americans.”

Thousands of unleashed party-hounds frolicking in pools, in bars, and on beaches upon the re-opening of their respective states are only fractionally less arrogant, less thoughtless, and less irresponsible than Donald Trump.

And there is no evidence that these fun-seekers are all Republicans. Watching social media feeds of these revelers is all anyone needs to know about the inability of millions of Americans of all political stripes to practice patience going forward.

Compounding this assault on “social distancing” has been, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis, days and nights of protests and riots in cities across the nation. In their haste to express outrage and/or to exact some kind of revenge (through looting and other violent acts) on authorities, tens of thousands of people have unwittingly done the virus a big favor. It loves human hosts.

The soundtrack of our nationwide double-catastrophe is about as ironical as can be imagined by anyone remotely aware of the contradictory spectacles of pleasure and destruction. I’m talking about the recent round of television, radio, and internet advertisements, tailor-made for the pandemic, selling products under the guise of flattering viewers/listeners with the refrain that “we are all in this together.”

The hell we are.

We’re in pieces, no matter how tasty your pizza or how comfy your shiny new car with its low annual interest rate may be.

Merciless Exposure

The physician/medical writer Siddhartha Mukherjee sounds a common theme when pointing out, “The pandemic has been merciless in what it has exposed. In many cases, the weaknesses in our medical system were ones that had already been the subject of widespread attention, such as the national scandal of health-care coverage that leaves millions of Americans uninsured.”

Of those millions, African-Americans have been uniquely at risk. In her May 14 column, Not Fake News contributor Stacey Fitzgerald focuses on the wildly disproportionate suffering caused by the coronavirus on the black community.

“Despite being just 13 percent of America’s population, in the cases where racial data is collected, blacks comprise an estimated 30 percent of covid-19 cases overall. More frightening, 22 percent of U.S. counties have disproportionately black populations and those counties account for 50 percent of covid-19 cases and 60 percent of deaths, according to The Washington Post,” she wrote.

Comprising other high risk groups are the elderly, patients with pre-existing conditions, and the poor in general.

Meanwhile, the scrambling of the medical establishment to get on top of the disease reveals a national disgrace well expressed by microbiology professor Susan Weiss of the University of Pennsylvania.

When Dr. Mukherjee suggested to her that recent pandemics such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) should have alerted the medical/government complex about the risk of another pandemic, Weiss replied, “‘You would think so, wouldn’t you?’, her voice tightening in indignation.”

Dr. Mukherjee proceeds to list the shortages “of protective gear, of ventilators, of pharmaceuticals. . . . Even bags of sterile saline solution—the most basic I.V. fluid, nothing more than salt and water—were hard to source.”

Reflecting on the disaster brought about by an America incapable of planning for events of this magnitude, he touches on “the tragedies of those who died alone in isolation rooms in hospitals, or of the disproportionate disease burden borne by African-Americans and working-class immigrants.” 

The Bell Tolls for U.S.

Maybe so many Americans are complacent about the coronavirus because SARS claimed zero American lives. Indeed, only 27 domestic cases were reported during the 2002-2004 outbreak that killed hundreds elsewhere.

See? Nothing at all to worry about there!

Or maybe we’re complacent because in 2012-2013 MERS, which claimed 866 deaths worldwide, led to only two cases and no deaths stateside.

It can’t happen here!

Or maybe because Ebola, which terrorized Africa (11,300 dead), spared the United States altogether (zero dead).

Perfect three out of three!

But not this time.

Listen up, America. One hundred thousand and counting.

To this six-figure number we will soon add the casualties (human and material) of the Floyd riots—which as of this writing have not yet peaked—as well as the covid-19 mortalities that have accrued since I wrote the first word of this essay.

The bell in the tower of the plague-besieged medieval church, today drowned out by the din of advertisements of insurance companies who care so much about your welfare; by windows being smashed in the streets of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minneapolis; by the beep of a medical device signaling another flat-lined victim of natural selection and unnatural American negligence—that bell is tolling for all of us.

Let us all stop for a minute and listen to it.

To hear is to take the first step toward personal and collective recovery.

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