The President has spent the past week repeatedly and falsely claiming, “US deaths from [COVID-19] are ‘lower’ than anywhere in the world.” The contrary evidence is all around us: the United States, a country that only contains 4% of the world’s population, is responsible for 22% of all COVID-19 deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been over 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. As schools (recklessly) begin to reopen, these numbers will continue to increase. It is obvious that the United States is not containing the spread of COVID-19 whatsoever; it’s been let loose throughout the country. All of which begs the question, where is the public outrage?
Back in late March, Dr. Fauci warned that if virus transmission in the United States continued on its then-current trajectory we could see anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 COVID-19 deaths. At the time, it seemed like a startling prediction; meant to snap us out of our emerging apathy towards the virus. To a degree, it worked. No sane person wanted to see such a dire prediction come into fruition. But somewhere along the line, our attitudes changed and the urgency faded. The United States has surpassed 160,000 COVID-19 deaths; which current models predict could reach 300,000 by December 1st. In spite of these horrifying statistics, outrage among Americans is quickly waning, while our tolerance for this abhorrent “new normal” grows.
How can we explain this escalating apathy? To begin with, there was never any national strategy for containing the spread of COVID-19. As a result, governors were left to their own devices to determine their individual state’s strategies for the pandemic. Widespread cases were initially detected in the so-called “blue states,” whose governors hastily scrambled to obtain adequate testing and PPE, impose stay-at-home orders and masks mandates, and form coalitions with their neighboring states.
Eventually, the curve started to flatten and even bend down, but the virus predictably spread to states like Texas and Florida that didn’t consistently impose such policies. Cases rapidly jumped back up, surpassing initial peaks. Medical professionals, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases, begged their states’ governors to do something. States that diligently worked to get virus transmission under control also urged Republican governors to take a more proactive approach, as their inaction put all Americans at risk. These desperate pleas largely fell on deaf ears.
Of course, the federal government could have stepped in and mandated national standards for controlling virus transmission. However, Trump has made it perfectly clear he will do absolutely nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. So Republicans were free to carry on, as if nothing was amiss. Cases numbers soared, ICUs reached capacity, and deaths skyrocketed. One would think that this might shock governors into acting, but when faced with mass death Republicans have a well-worn strategy: do nothing. Those unfamiliar with Republican politics might find this surprising. Who could look at the number of people getting sick and dying and not do anything? Republicans can. After all, they have a plethora of experience in normalizing mass death.
The United States doesn’t just top the world with COVID-19 cases and deaths, we also hold the title for gun violence. Every year, 36,000 Americans are killed by guns and an additional 100,000 are shot. A startling amount of gun violence victims are children: “Gun violence is the second-leading cause of death among children overall and the first-leading cause of death among black children.” Since 1970, there have been 1,316 school shootings in the United States. In fact, March 2020 marked “the first March [since 2002] without a school shooting in the United States.” For context, schools were closed at this time.
Gun violence and deaths are so common that Americans have become horrifyingly inured to it. Beginning in the 1970s, the Republican Party, at the behest of the NRA, has blocked or opposed any meaningful gun control legislation. Whenever there is a mass shooting, Republicans know the drill. Ignore the outcry for legislative action, dodge any personal responsibility, collect their “donations” from the NRA, and offer up some paltry “thoughts and prayers.” The public, again, realizes that elected officials will take no meaningful action against gun violence and we move on. It’s a pattern that is so seeped into the American consciousness we hardly even notice it.
We are seeing the same playbook be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, a former White House official confirmed to The Washington Post that the Trump administration “[is] of the belief that people will get over [the pandemic] or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day.” Trump’s apathetic attitude towards COVID-19 victims was put on full display during his disastrous interview on Axios. When pressed on the fact that approximately one thousand Americans are dying every day as a result of COVID-19 Trump replied, “It is what it is.”
Republicans are trying to see if they can get us to accept mass deaths as a result of an uncontrolled pandemic as just another unique quirk in American society. At first glance, this might seem like an unrealistic expectation. How could we possibly rationalize the deaths of 160,000 Americans? However, the truth is, Americans have tacitly accepted this arrangement with gun violence and are starting to do it again with COVID-19. Just take a look at what’s happening with American schools.
Across the country, several schools have reopened their doors for the 2020–2021 school year, ignoring the frantic pleas of teachers and school faculty not to be sent to their deaths. In practically no time at all, the obvious happened: children came to school sick with COVID-19. To anyone who has worked in the public school system, this was a predictable and inevitable outcome of an incredibly irresponsible decision to open schools during a raging pandemic. I had previously assessed that when this occurred, school systems throughout the country would immediately backpedal, close schools, and switch to remote learning.
I was wrong.
Take, for instance, North Paulding High School in Georgia. Although several student-athletes and staff members at North Paulding High School tested positive for COVID-19 before the first day of school, schools in the district still opened their doors for in-person classes. To make matters worse, Paulding County is not requiring schools within the district to enforce masks or social distancing. North Paulding High School has opted out of both of these protective measures. Not even two days into this ongoing catastrophe, students snapped a couple of pictures and videos of crowded hallways with mostly mask-less students standing shoulder to shoulder. The school took swift action, albeit it was against the students who took the photos, who were suspended. (Amidst public outcry, the decision has since been reversed.)
In this situation, I expected the school districts to immediately close and (once again) thrust their unprepared teachers and students into remote learning. Students and school faculty are clearly at risk of contracting COVID-19 and the school district could be held legally accountable for knowingly endangering their lives. While I still do believe that lawsuits will occur, the school districts where people have come to school sick haven’t closed. Some schools have quarantined students and faculty who were believed to have come into contact with a COVID-19 positive individual, but the schools are shockingly remaining open.
Once children came to school with COVID-19, the argument to reopen schools immediately switched from “children aren’t at risk and don’t pose a danger to the adults around them” to “it’s a necessary risk, in order to keep schools open.” In other words, exposure to COVID-19 in a school setting is just par for the course, get used to it. One might read this and wonder, “who could possibly accept this as normal?” Unfortunately, many already have. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, some students, parents, and faculty voiced serious concerns for their district’s and state’s lackadaisical approach to the pandemic, while others demonstrated a terrifying willingness to embrace it:
Steven, a North Paulding student who asked that only his middle name be used, said he felt safe going to school without a mask…“If I get it, I get it. I believe that’s what most people in my area’s ideology is — if we get it, we get it.” Steven said he didn’t want to let worries about spreading the virus to his family control his life. “Most of my family, including my grandparents, think the same as well,” he said. “We just go on about our business and keep it out of our mind.”
I cannot overstate how dangerous this complacency is. Mass death is being quickly normalized in this country and we have to strongly resist it. Republicans have persuaded many of their constituents that legislators can’t or shouldn’t do anything to control the spread of COVID-19. Do you think they will change their minds when children start getting sick and dying at school? Reconsider this position. (I won’t even bother to mention the inevitable deaths of teachers. That’s already happened and Trump’s only response was to demand that schools reopen, anyway.) The Republican Party has already demonstrated an incredible willingness to ignore the countless American children who have been shot in school. Whether it’s by a gun or a virus, Republicans truly don’t care if your child dies a preventable death.
Look, I understand how depressing and infuriating it is to constantly watch case counts and death tolls climb higher and higher. As I was writing this article, I had to update the total number of COVID-19 cases and deaths three times. It’s completely understandable why people would want to look away, especially since so many of our elected leaders have responded to hundreds of thousands of dead Americans with a collective shrug. But we can’t allow mass death to be normalized. Once this happens, it’s all over. Cases and deaths will go through the roof. More innocent people will needlessly die. And a culpable government will wash their hands of any responsibility because they convinced us that it was out of their control.