And then I imagine that happening on a live stream so the country can witness the horror. That’s what it would look like if you could see all the Americans who have died of covid-19 since last March.
I can tell myself that everyone dies, which is unhelpful. I can tell myself that the great majority of the victims are old and many would have died of something else relatively soon — but then again, many wouldn’t, and I personally don’t think of the last decade or so of life as a sort of useless appendix.
More usefully, I can tell myself that there was probably never a window when we could have completely controlled this virus. By the time we knew it was a problem, it was already here, silently circulating. I can look at the death rates in places such as Italy and console myself that it could have been worse.
But that’s not much consolation, because we should have done so much better.
Back in the spring, I listed many ways that the United States was uniquely well-positioned to fight this virus. Americans generally demand a lot more personal space than people in other countries; we stand farther apart, our houses are bigger and our public spaces tend to be larger and better ventilated than those inEurope. We drive rather than take mass transit. We are richer and can afford to spend more on virus-proofing our homes and businesses — or paying for the ones that can’t be virus-proofed to be closed until the pandemic ended. We have more intensive care beds per capita, more equipment and more pricey specialists than almost anywhere else. We have a fantastically innovative biotech sector.
Two major American assets I didn’t list, and should have, were weather and time. America’s weather was more favorable to fighting covid-19 because more of our landmass falls in southern latitudes where it’s comfortable, for most of the year, to spend time outside. Moreover, we had time to figure all that out, because Europe got hit hard first, giving us a valuable preview of horrors to come. That bought us priceless extra days — only we squandered them and every other advantage we started with.
Sure, America doesn’t have the absolute worst death rate in the industrialized world — not yet, anyway. I’m not sure we’ll be able to say that after Americans celebrate our extra fall holiday, then leap from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Either way, we’ll still be doing much worse than we could have — and much worse than we should have. And I mean all of us, not just President Trump.
Yes, Trump was by far the worst bungler in this whole affair. But there is plenty of blame to go around: the public health folks who told us not to wear masks; the journalists who told us to worry about the flu or racism or anything except the pandemic spreading out of China; the politicians who didn’t pass enough stimulus; the skeptics who refused to revise their skepticism when new evidence emerged; the refuseniks who treated their own noncompliance as proof that distancing measures can’t work; anyone who treated a forecasting model as a proven fact; everyone who blessed some gatherings while condemning others; the Republicans who humored Trump; the teachers unions and governments that pushed unnecessary, damaging school closures; everyone, left or right, who turned this into a political battle with their fellow Americans, rather than a desperate fight our country needed to unite to win.
I include myself in that number. I think of all the times I lost my temper with covid skeptics, even though I knew it was counterproductive, and I regret every one of them. I look back at my columns and wonder if I should have advocated for less intrusive policies that might have garnered broader support, or if I would have convinced more people if I’d evinced a little more humility in my conviction that America needed to take radical action immediately. I’ll never know, of course, but I’ll always wonder: How many people could we have saved if everyone, from the president on down, had acted as if saving American lives from a deadly virus was the most important thing we had to do this year? How many stadium seats could we have filled with the people who didn’t have to die?