In fact, cars kill about 40,000 people a year. Virus-related deaths hit 70,000 in only two months and are growing fast — and yet this comparison still doesn’t even take into account its disproportionate toll on health-care workers, nor the thousands of survivors who will suffer poor health for years, nor, oh yeah, the fact that car accidents aren’t contagious.
These discrepancies were glaringly obvious to Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, who wrote an entire book, “Carjacked,” about our nation’s fatal romance with automobiles. But more than that, they see Trump and his allies attempting to foist onto Americans the same kind of stew of rationalization and magical thinking about the coronavirus that the automobile industry has cultivated around car-crash deaths for many years.
In short, they see an attempt to normalize the hideous toll of the coronavirus — just as we long ago came to accept 40,000 car-crash deaths a year as “normal” — and they are afraid the media is only going to help Trump’s case.
“The problem with normalizing deaths,” they wrote in a recent essay for the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, where Lutz is an anthropology professor, is that “it allows more deaths. It makes it easier for the horrors of virus deaths to fall off the broadcast news chyron, to divert resources away from public health and for future politicians to treat the next pandemic even more glibly.”
Consider the way news outlets and pundits have adopted the language of “reopening the country” from politicians, making it a constant in headlines, cable panel discussions and radio reports.
This terminology presents a false choice.
“It’s binary, it’s all-or-nothing, now-or-never, and it doesn’t allow for rational discussion of how to keep people safe,” Lutz told me by phone. “It promotes the idea of ‘open is good, closed is bad’ — so do you want something bad or good?”
Even worse, it conflates what’s good for the economy with what’s good for the citizens of the country.
Then there’s Trump’s latest trope: “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years.” Rather than encouraging Americans to think in a more nuanced way about how to prevent coronavirus deaths while helping the millions who are suffering financial disaster, the language implies a brutal and necessary trade-off.
Lutz and Fernandez see an even more insidious (never directly stated) sales pitch just beneath the surface: That it’s okay for “Grandma” to die, along with the other members of society, who in former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s crass terms, “were on their last legs anyway.”
Media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen sees a strategy of normalizing the coronavirus as key to Trump’s attempt to save his political skin before November’s presidential election, as he described in a widely read essay last week:
“The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible,” he wrote.
The media’s role in Trump’s plan-without-a-plan? Well, he’s counting on us to regurgitate and magnify his message — and in doing so, make people begin to shrug off the daily horrors as inevitable. When journalists repeat the rhetoric about the necessity of widespread “reopening” or when they become inured to the continuing death count, they do his work for him.
But there’s another way.
The media can find ways to point out the loaded language and its political purpose. (In a smart story, my colleague David Nakamura explained how Trump’s “warrior” rhetoric is both a way to suggest that “it is no longer just medical workers on the front lines who must respond” but all Americans — and a way to cast himself as a wartime leader.)
We can report on alternative strategies to the flailing, premature attempts to return to life as we knew it. We can emphasize what the scientists and medical professionals are saying.
And, above all, we can keep making the deaths and suffering personal, more than mere numbers.
Tell the stories of those who died. And, as Fernandez put it, “keep highlighting the abnormalities” — the ways that the virus has so cruelly upended our standards of what is acceptable.
It’s not normal to lose multiple members of one family, or for family members not to be able to see each other when one of them is dying. We shouldn’t grow desensitized to it.
When Lutz teaches her anthropology classes, she urges students to avoid normalizing the costs of war, for example, and to challenge presumptions. She calls it “questioning the question.”
In the case of the coronavirus, the flawed question that demands questioning is the one that asks how many deaths are okay to restore the economy. Or as Ron Johnson downplayed it, the “risk we accept so we can move around.”
That dichotomy closes off a nuanced discussion of other options — such as providing adequate financial help to unemployed people, rather than forcing them to put their lives at risk by going back to work too soon.
Human lives aren’t just numbers. What’s good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily what’s good for most Americans.
Yet the news media too often absorbs these concepts, and spits them back at the public as if there were no alternatives.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
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