Source: image “firm hands” (cc by 2.0)
As of this writing, 22.9 million COVID 19 cases have been confirmed in the U. S., and 381,000 of our fellow Americans have died from the disease. The infection rate and death toll rise daily, inexorably. Just yesterday, January 12, over 4,000 deaths were reported. More of our fellow citizens die from COVID 19 each day than were killed in the 9/11 attacks. As we head deeper into the winter, public health experts are unanimous in warning that this highly infectious virus will lead to more infection, hospitalization and death. While many of the over 22 million infected people may remain asymptomatic or experience mild to moderate symptoms and then fully recover, many others become severely ill and suffer long term chronic and disabling symptoms. And many, nearly 400,00 and rising, die of the disease.
Each number represents a whole person, an individual with a rich, complex history, embedded in a network of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Each absence leaves a small hole, a rent in the fabric of a community. The holes multiply until the garment of our body politic is shredded. Our public health system, our hospitals and our health care professionals are all stretched to the breaking point.
Yet, there seems a strange disconnect between this horrifying reality and our civic response. Understandably, the public, political leaders and pundits focus on reviving the economy. A frayed social safety net has left a large portion of the American population, all but the affluent, insecure, afraid and for too many, hungry. Equally urgent is the yearning to return to “normal.” A highly contagious respiratory virus hits us social primates right where it hurts most—in our fundamental need to be connected to other humans. We bristle at restrictions that cut off intimacy between us and our social circle; masks that obscure our facial expressions, physical distance, the loss of touch. The intimacy inherent in human culture has been impoverished, flattened to two dimensions on a screen, rather than experienced live, in three dimensions, and in the close company of the conspecifics we need to touch, feel and smell to be truly human.
In sum, we are facing the triple whammy of losses: lives lost, economy lost, sociality lost. At the same time, the whirlwind of other crises, such as political turmoil, diverts our attention from these losses. The urge to regain the Before Times, via the promise of vaccination, gathers steam. A natural human tendency to look ahead to better times and to close the book on a frightening past is taking hold.
Will we repeat the historical example of the 1918 influenza pandemic? An estimated 50 million people died, 675,000 of them in the U. S. Yet, this devastation quickly receded from public memory and seemed willfully buried in the collective consciousness. The pandemic raged along with World War I, which helped spread the disease but also distracted from it.
Now, as then, we, as a society have not found ways to grieve, to mourn the losses already suffered. Without national galvanizing around a common enemy, we lack a shared narrative, much less a shared mission. In its absence, perhaps it is not surprising that there are no communal rituals, no shared wake or shiva for the millions who have suffered a lost loved one. No bells are tolling in every town. No moments of silence cause us to bow our heads in unison. No nationwide memorials bind us together in grief. Perhaps the full extent of this moving catastrophe cannot be comprehended except in the rear-view mirror, when we emerge fully vaccinated with herd immunity achieved. Perhaps our individualistic culture encourages us only to focus on how our inner circle is faring, with little regard for the suffering of others. Perhaps the horror of contemplating so much death in our midst spurs us to denial.
Yet we need to mourn, to acknowledge our nearly unbearable losses. I am speaking not only of lives lost to Covid 19 but also the enduring health problems experienced by many who seemingly recover. The losses of jobs, of income and the rise of hunger, homelessness and desperation must be mourned too, even as our political leaders hopefully bring economic relief. We should mourn the loss of community as individuals stay home, distance from one another when they go out, and nervously eye one another when they must occupy the same spaces. Finally, we mourn the loss of all that makes human society vibrant—music, theatre, dance, museums, restaurants, bars, travel, and on and on. Yes, we have zoom and Facetime and live streaming, they are a poor substitute for intimate human contact.
What would such collective mourning look like? A first step is recognizing the need to grieve. Religious, community and political leaders can help give us permission and indeed, encouragement to do the work of grieving. Media such as television and newspapers can give more attention to personalizing the death toll with individual stories. We can begin to think about memorials to the fallen of Covid. Much as the Vietnam Memorial documented each individual’s death, there should be a way to translate unfathomable numbers into recognition of individual lives lost. The AIDS quilt may be another inspiration, as art provides a mechanism for celebrating and documenting individual lives. Just as the attacks of 9/11 are commemorated by public readings of the names of those killed, individual communities can recite the names of their neighbors and friends no longer with them. Whatever forms collective grieving takes, it should ensure that we as a society do not hasten to bury our collective trauma once a semblance of normality resumes.