After mass shootings killed and injured people who went grocery shopping, going to church and simply living their lives last weekend, the nation marked a milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID-19. This number, once unimaginable, is now an irreversible reality in the United States—just like the persistent reality of gun violence that kills thousands of people each year.
Americans have always endured high rates of death and suffering in certain sections of society. But the number of deaths from preventable causes, and the clear acknowledgment that no policy change is on the horizon, raises the question: Is mass death accepted in America?
“I think the evidence is anecdotal and absolutely clear. We will endure the massive amount of genocide, suffering and death in America, as we have in the last two years. We have our own history,” said an epidemiologist and professor at Yale Greg Gonsalves, who previously was a prominent member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP.
“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, then the American response to COVID-19 is kind of … it’s a form of American quirk, isn’t it?” Gonsalves says. “Really – a million people are dead? And you’re going to talk to me about the need to get back to normalcy, when for the most part most of us have been living a fairly reasonable life for the past six months?
Certain communities in the United States have always borne the brunt of high mortality rates. There are deep racial and class inequalities in the United States, and our tolerance for death is partly based on who is at risk, says Elizabeth Wrigley-field, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies mortality. Huh.
“The deaths of some people matter a lot more than others,” she laments. “And I think with this coincidence of timing we’re looking at a really brutal way.”
According to officials, in Buffalo, the alleged shooter was a racist intent on killing as many black people as possible. The family of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, one of 10 people killed in an attack on a grocery store serving the African American community, channeled the grief and despair of millions as they called for action, including a hate crime bill. was also involved. And accountability for those spreading hate speech.
“You expect us to keep doing this over and over again – over and over again, forgive and forget,” his son, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., told reporters. “While the people we elect and trust in the offices of this country do their best not to protect us, not to treat us as equals.”
This sentiment – that politicians have done little while violence repeats itself – is shared by many Americans. According to Martha Lincoln, a professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University, it is a dynamic that is fueled by the “thoughts and prayers” given by politicians to victims of gun violence, who seek to make meaningful commitments to ensure Not ready is really “never again”. who studies the cultural politics of public health.
“I don’t think most Americans feel good about it. I think most Americans would like to see real action from their leaders in the culture about these broader issues,” says Lincoln, who says that because of COVID-19 There is a similar “political void” around.
The high numbers of deaths from COVID-19, guns and other causes are hard to fathom and can start to feel like background noise, alienated from the individuals who lost their lives and the families whose lives will last forever. changed for
With COVID-19, American society has come to accept the death of children as a preventable cause. In a recently published guest column advocate According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the newspaper reported that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19, despite the “myth” that it is harmless to children. . Kline wrote that there was a time in pediatrics when “children should not have died.”
“There was no acceptable pediatric body count,” he wrote. “At least, not before the first pandemic of the social media era, COVID-19 changed everything.”
Sonali Rajan, a Columbia University professor who researches school violence, says there are many parallels between America’s response to COVID-19 and its response to the gun violence pandemic.
“We have normalized mass death in this country for a long time. Gun violence has persisted as a public health crisis for decades,” she says, noting that every year an estimated 100,000 people are shot and about 40,000 will die.
Gun violence is now such a part of life in America that we organize our lives around its inevitability. Children do lockdown drills at school. And in about half the states, Rajan says, teachers are allowed to carry firearms.
She sees similar dynamics when she looks at the current response to COVID-19. Americans, she says, “deserve to be able to go to work without getting sick, or to work somewhere without getting sick, or to be able to send their kids to school without getting sick.”
“What will happen down the line if more and more people get sick and become disabled?” He asked. “What happens? Do we live like this for the foreseeable future?”
It is important, she says, to ask what policies are being put in place by elected officials, who have the power to “participate in the health and well-being of their constituents.”
“It is remarkable how that responsibility has been relinquished, how would I describe it,” Rajan says.
The level of concern about deaths often depends on the context, says Rajeev Sethi, an economics professor at Barnard College who has written about both gun violence and COVID-19. He points to a rare but dramatic event, such as an airplane crash or an accident at a nuclear power plant, that matters to people.
Conversely, something like traffic deaths gets less attention. The government said this week that nearly 43,000 people were killed on the country’s roads last year, the highest level in 16 years. The federal government unveiled a national strategy earlier this year to tackle the problem.
Even when talking about gun violence, the Buffalo shootings have attracted a lot of attention, but mass shootings represent a small number of gun deaths in the United States each year, Sethi says. For example, there are more gun suicides than homicides in the US, with an estimated 24,000 gun suicides compared to 19,000 homicides. But even though there are policy proposals that could help within the confines of the Second Amendment, he says the debate over guns remains politically entrenched.
“The result is that nothing gets done,” Sethi says. “The result is paralysis.”
Megan Rainey of Brown University’s School of Public Health calls it a frustrating “learned helplessness”.
“There’s an almost constant narrative created by some that tells people that these things are inevitable,” says Rainey, an ER doctor who did gun violence research before COVID-19 hit. “It divides us when people think there is nothing they can do.”
She wonders if people really understand the sheer number of people who die from guns, from COVID-19, and from opioids. The CDC said this month that more than 107,000 Americans would die from drug overdoses in 2021, setting a record.
Rainey also points to false narratives spread by bad actors, such as denying that deaths are preventable, or suggesting that those who die deserve it. In the United States, there is an emphasis on individual responsibility for health—and the tension between the individual and the community, Rainey says.
“It’s not that we underestimate a personal life, but that we’re coming up against the limits of that approach,” she says. “Because the truth is that any person’s life, any person’s death or disability really affects the larger community.”
Similar debates took place in the last century about child labor laws, worker protections and reproductive rights, Rainey says.
An understanding of history is important, says Wrigley-field, who teaches history at ACT UP in one of her classes. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the White House press secretary made anti-gay jokes when asked about AIDS, and everyone in the room laughed. The activists were able to mobilize a mass movement that forced people to change their way of thinking and politicians to change the way they worked, she says.
“I don’t think those things are off the table anymore. It’s just that it’s not really clear whether they’re going to emerge,” Wrigley-field says. “I don’t think giving up is a permanent condition. But I think that’s where we are at the moment.”