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We Must Not Normalize Death

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | May 5, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | May 5, 2020 |


I try to be the hopeful, cautious optimist around these parts, because being bombarded with grim news every day all day can do a number to our collective mental and emotional health. With that said, I have noticed a trend in podcasts and YouTube shows devoted to finding the “positive stories,” and I think that’s important. To a point. I think that John Krasinki’s weekly “Some Good News” can provide some much-needed uplift, for instance, or just an excuse to shed those tears you were already going to shed.

I will also admit that, in the last week, for my own well-being, I have had to limit my own news consumption to only one or two blocks a day, with no hard news after dinner. I have a tendency to stat spiral and fall into a depressive funk, as I did yesterday when the NYTimes reported that an internal White House report projected 200,000 cases a day and 3,000 deaths a day by June 1st.

That is an enormous loss of life, the likes of which we have not seen in America since the 1918 Spanish pandemic. It all reinforces something I told my wife maybe six or seven weeks ago: That we probably wouldn’t be able to control the spread, that we would eventually open up, and that the United States would grow numb to the daily number of deaths. It would be like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be like the suffering we have witnessed as the Mexican border. We can only watch so much misery before we turn away. People will stop clicking on those stories, and then the media will also turn to other news. And those vulnerable communities will just get … lost.

That is my fear as we begin to open back up: That America will just start to accept a massive number of casualties per day. We will look the other way as people in nursing homes, prisons, homeless shelters, food-processing plants, and other vulnerable communities die by the literal thousands. We will not only look the other way, but we will focus on “the positive stories,” which is important but can do a huge disservice to the people who are suffering.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the next few months, but I don’t think that America — politically, culturally, economically — has the ability to do what is necessary to successfully contain this outbreak. I am hopeful that science will come along and save a lot of lives. But also, when people read 3,000 deaths a day, their eyes probably bugged out. Mine did. But the truth is, 1700-2000 people are dying every day already, and we are just sort of factoring that into our lives emotionally. Less than 300 people die each day now in NYC, and this is good news. I am not trying to rain on that parade, either. It is good news, except for the 290 people that die every day, and their friends and family members and the hundreds of other loved ones in their lives.

The truth is, while 3,000 sounds like a huge number — and it is — the United States could experience 200,000 new infections a day and 3,000 deaths for two years straight, and even then — absolutely worst-case scenario — the United States would lose less than a percent of the population to this virus.

That’s the big picture. But I hope we never think in terms of the big picture. The “big picture” is just a way to hand-wave away human suffering, and I hope we as a country never do that. I hope that, if we do start to see 3,000 deaths a day, that we do not normalize that. I hope that it never stops feeling like a shock.

We are lucky here in Maine (so far) in that we have only seen 57 deaths tied to the virus, which means most days we only see one or two deaths. In announcing those deaths, the director of our state CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, reminds us all every single day that the people who die are not statistics. They are human beings with families. A few days later, we often see the carefully written and lovely tributes to those who have passed in the obituaries in our local newspapers. Here, anyway, these deaths are not statistics. I read all of those obituaries to remind me of that. I just hope that, in the rest of the country, we can do the same, that we can avoid normalizing massive casualties in the same ways that we have normalized everything else over the last four years.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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