Remembering 500,000 Dead Americans

Marking a grim milestone in the pandemic

Photo: Mike Labrum/Unsplash

The first thing I do every day is update the data on new cases, deaths, and vaccinations at the top of the Coronavirus Blog. Updating the death count has felt especially harrowing lately. On Monday morning, I typed: “So far over 498,900 Americans have died from Covid-19.” By Monday evening, the president and vice president had announced plans to observe a moment of silence for 500,000 Americans who lost their lives to this deadly disease.

This is a painful moment for the United States, and there are many dimensions to this pain. There’s the pain of permanent loss and families torn apart. There’s pain in the exhaustion of all the people working tirelessly in harrowing circumstances to prevent these deaths and more pain in their inability to save everyone, despite their efforts. The pain that comes with knowing Black Americans have died at 1.4 times the rate of white Americans is unbearable. Wondering whether all of this pain could have been avoided — if the government hadn’t completely botched its response, if more of us were willing to work together, if more people trusted science, or if resources were distributed equitably — hurts most of all.

The pain of what could have been is a knife to the gut. The wound is bitter because the decisions that would have led to an alternate reality in which half a million people didn’t die should have been simple ones, and they were within reach. Of course there should have been mask mandates and federal support for hospitals and widespread testing. There should have been accessible government data and daily public health briefings to address people’s fears and misconceptions. Why any of these basic, life-saving decisions required any deliberation is, especially from this vantage point, unfathomable.

Now, as we pass this milestone, we face even more of these decisions. Different ones but with no less potential for impact. This is an opportunity to square our pain with our actions. If the goal is to save as many lives as possible and prevent further pain, we must prioritize people in nursing homes and in long-term care facilities. We must also put people of color first: So far the vaccine rollout is riddled with racial inequity, and this needs to change, quickly. New and possibly more lethal variants are spreading that are not fully understood, and all of us must commit to distancing and mask-wearing in order to keep them contained while the government commits to whole-genome sequencing to track their spread.

Sometimes, when I update the data at the top of the Coronavirus Blog, I find myself treating the numbers as just numbers, and I feel ashamed to be in a position to do so while the friends and families of 500,000 people must confront them every day. I force myself to do the same because I am afraid of getting used to a world where deaths are numbers on a ticker that inevitably strides forward by the thousands. I reread Andy Slavitt’s story from October 2020, when the death count neared 250,000, to remind myself how harrowing it felt then and to make myself notice how much worse it feels now. I hope I never have to reflect on this piece because the count reaches 750,000.

There’s no salve for pain of this scale, but I find a small amount of solace in the other data point I update every day: the number of vaccinations that have taken place in the United States. On Monday morning, 63.1 million doses had been administered in this country; on Tuesday, 64.2 million — not enough, but it is improving. The number grows faster than the death count. I can’t wait until it outstrips it completely.



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Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.