I attempted to run a distraction from this pandemic this spring and summer.
It’s a bracket game, where the participants vote on one of two songs from the history of Contemporary Christian music. I did something similar last year. It was a good time then. I figured, with a whole host of people cooped up in their houses, it would be a better time now.
Some strange things happened on the way to the execution of this bracket game, though: people started ignoring the pandemic.
There are important reasons to neglect the pandemic, mind, and demonstrations that are increasingly hopeful are necessary responses to the injustice of the time, even (and especially) given the risks that come with this moment. But those aren’t the reasons to ignore the pandemic that I tend to see in East Tennessee.
Those reasons range from selfishness to apathy to even active disbelief. At the very top of our leadership, the anti-intellectual streak in how we respond to even suggestions of best practice to avoid sickness has been obvious. “In many states and cities, you have the leadership actually giving the right guideline instruction. But somehow, people for one reason or another, don’t believe it or not fazed by it. And they go ahead and do things that are either against the guidelines that their own leadership is saying.”
And while other nations around the world arrest the spread of this novel coronavirus and citizens of other places cooperate for the good health of their neighbor, the United States of America leads the world in spread of the pandemic and neglect of their own.
I found myself turning on my own effort to distract. I found myself being negative and vindictive towards the very game I was trying to get people to play. I found myself letting a thing I’d put months into preparing atrophy and fall apart.
I’ve stated in the past that I’m given over to depression, and I am progressively getting better at recognizing the patterns of depression that can hit my life – and this response surely fits into that pattern. But as I’ve sat with the realizations of what I’m feeling, to simply call it “depression” really doesn’t satisfy, because the impacts of this spring and summer have been far too wide-ranging.
And the realization that as of Sunday, we can account for 119,429 people who have died from this pandemic in the United States – with no end to the running total in sight – drives the reality home.
Where is the mourning?
When the decision of whether to wear a mask or not wear a mask is cast as a political debate that predicts your agreement with the current president, the actual lives impacted by a rapidly spreading disease are lost in the rhetorical tempest.
There are people dedicated to telling those stories. I came across a PRX broadcast called A Sudden Loss dedicated to eulogies of people whose lives were lost to COVID-19, read over the course of an hour. There are journalistic efforts that are local, national and global.
Those efforts are the exception and not the rule, however. As impossible as it was for me to follow national news before this spring, much of what I hear in the current moment simply doesn’t matter. The familiar battle lines of cable news trivialize the failures that have led us to this moment and the human toll this has exacted.
And those familiar battle lines propagate to the wider population. Where are the flags at half-mast over the lives lost? Where is the outrage over the magnitude of lives lost? Where is our concern for our fellow humans?
The fact that the social media fury is reserved for this viral video of someone refusing to wear a mask or that latest outrage from the current occupant of the White House and not for another day’s death toll in the hundreds or thousands is so telling. Maybe we’re desperate to avoid the humanity; maybe we take comfort from familiar political debate; maybe we simply can’t bear the thought that the death toll that surrounds us in the country could ultimately include us, too.
Humanity is nothing if not shared. Whatever the reason we choose to do so, to simply reduce the death toll from COVID-19 to a mere number and not to human lives lost is to cut that humanity off, to pretend that we don’t share the same human experience.
Statistics matter, however, and we are entering into a new reason to protest, a new reason for outrage.
The radical spike in positive cases across the Sun Belt over the course of the past week is predictive of a new spike in deaths within the next two weeks. The spread of cases that has been allowed to progress unchecked is a death sentence for entirely too many Americans who simply don’t deserve what is going to transpire. Leaders saying “the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control” should be ominous, instead of just another Sunday morning news show quote.
It becomes very evident that not merely is this not over, this is really only beginning.
And the only way I know how to respond at this point is to mourn.
I am out of ways to make people feel better. There is nothing to feel better about. I have spent a whole spring trying to seek out ways to be optimistic in this difficult time. I’m out of optimism. Things are bad. Things are going to get worse.
The very least we can do is recognize that there are 119,429 people whose unique stories have ended in ways that the supposed most advanced country on earth could not stop.
And we need to ask ourselves why our efforts to stop this relentless onslaught of death and dying have been so timid.
Those are questions nothing should distract us from.
The data from the graph are taken from the COVID Tracking Project‘s daily updates. The treatment of the data to yield seven-day moving averages for smoothing is my own, generated through Google Sheets.