On Memorial Day 2020, we are experiencing a deep national trauma, about which too little has been spoken.
Nearly 100,000 people in the United States have lost their lives to COVID-19. Our national conversation has focused at nearly all times—as it should—on response measures intended to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, but we are missing the moment in a terrible way, if we don’t think carefully about how to recognize the trauma and honor the memory of those lost.
The New York Times gave its front page yesterday to 1,000 names of those lost to COVID-19. The image is startling, and sobering. More sobering still: it would take 99 more such pages to provide enough space for the names of all of those lost so far. Online, the Times has created an interactive article that provides short, but highly personal excerpts from obituaries about the people lost to the virus.
Every person lost had contributed to the lives of others. In most cases, there was no substantial way for people to grieve together in the warm embrace of those who understand what their departed friends, colleagues, neighbors, and loved ones gave to the lives of others. Not only is an irreplaceable everyday human richness gone; the loss is deepened by distance and isolation.
We must also remember the nurses, doctors and other medical workers, who are living the battle, putting their own lives at risk to save others and keep all of us safe. And, we now recognize the heroism of essential workers who take risks to make sure food is available, and other basic services. We owe it to them to actively reduce the risk they face.
A study of early coronavirus response delays in the US found that establishing strict social distancing just one week earlier could have avoided more than half of the deaths we have seen. Another study found the pandemic is not contained in the United States, and lifting social distancing measures in most places could lead to twice the number of deaths to date.
There are now more live infections in the community than there were when the major outbreak began in the US. New infections are increasingly happening in rural counties with far fewer resources for pandemic response. Many rural counties do not have any intensive care units; a surprising number do not even have hospitals.
Going “back to normal” now could cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The economic hardship we are going through now will be dwarfed by the prolonged, pervasive economic depression that will come if we see a second wave that is worse, if rehiring becomes unlikely or impossible, and if public-sector resources to fund relief payments are depleted.
39 million Americans, roughly a quarter of the workforce, have requested unemployment assistance over the last 9 weeks. Many millions more (likely half of all households) have seen a decline in income during this time. 1 in 9 Americans were already suffering from hunger before the pandemic; we are now seeing hours-long waits and miles-long lines at food banks. Honoring that trauma, and reducing the risk of worse, means stopping the pandemic first of all.
We know from the experience of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, in which the 2nd wave killed many more than the 1st, that cities that instituted social distancing earlier and kept it going longer, recovered faster and had more robust economies after the pandemic subsided. Working together for a better outcome… works.
75 years ago, the war in Europe ended. Millions of people struggled mightily to resist and to overcome unspeakable evil. That victory would not have been possible without the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. What we must never forget is that every one of the people who joined that landing made our world possible.
There were lives lost in the surf, soldiers who never made it to the beach… they helped make sure others would make it further. Everyone who died that day helped make sure the Allied invasion would succeed. Every one of those people—whom most of us know nothing about—gave their lives in service of humankind, and our collective right to live free of fear.
Wearing a mask is an act of service and a declaration that there will be no surrender. Wearing a mask means you commit to the idea that it would be wrong to help the virus spread. It means you want to protect others, and for them to play a similar role in slowing the spread, to achieve greater safety for all. Reciprocity is how we defeat this invisible enemy.
The beneficiaries of our small acts of service—our wearing a mask to slow the spread, our social distancing despite the urge to be closer or gather in groups, our working from home or working differently, or serving restaurant-goers only at curbside—will never be able to trace the karmic chain back to the act itself. They will never know who saved their life or their loved-one’s life.
That does not negate the power, the meaning, or the transcendent virtue of the good and decent act in service of others. Concretely: If 80% of people wear masks, death rates could be 50 times lower. Wearing a mask lets everyone know that you care about their existence, about their right to be fully human and free, about the resilience and the future of our republic, and of a world where its values win out.
The Declaration of Independence famously opens with a recognition of the “unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, but it closes with the words that would make the republic possible: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
We are in this together. Let’s make sure to understand it, to honor what is sacred, and to each do our part.