PROVIDENCE, R.I. ( Associated Press) — After several recent shootings across the United States killed and injured people shopping for groceries, going to church or just going about their lives, the nation marked the milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID-19. The once-unthinkable number is now an irreversible reality in the country, as is the persistent reality of gun violence, which kills tens of thousands each year.
Americans have always tolerated high death rates among certain segments of society, but the numbers of deaths from preventable causes and Americans’ seeming acceptance that there is nothing in sight to change raises a question: Have mass deaths normal among Americans?
“I think the evidence is unequivocal and quite clear. We tolerate an enormous amount of carnage, suffering, and death in America, because we have in the last two years. We’ve done it throughout our history,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and professor at Yale who was a leading member of the AIDS advocacy group Act Up.
“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, the American response to COVID-19 has been kind of… it’s a form of American grotesque, isn’t it?” Gonsalves added. “Really? A million dead? And you talk to me about the need to get back to normal, when, for the most part, most of us have been living reasonable lives in the last six months?
Certain communities have always carried the burden of increased mortality. Deep racial and class inequities exist in the United States, and our tolerance of death is based on who is at risk, explained Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a professor of sociology and mortality scholar at the University of Minnesota.
“The deaths of some people matter more than those of others,” he lamented. “I think that’s what we’re seeing in this really brutal way with this coincidence of moments.”
In Buffalo, the attacker was a racist determined to kill black people, according to authorities. The family of one of the 10 people he killed — 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield — channeled the pain and frustration of millions by demanding action to change things.
“You expect us to do this over and over again. And again, forgive and forget,” said his son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr. “While the people we elect and trust to fill positions in this country do their best to not protect us, so as not to consider ourselves equal”.
That feeling — that politicians are doing too little while violence repeats itself — is shared by many Americans. It’s a sentiment epitomized by condolences offered to victims of gun violence by politicians reluctant to change policy, according to Martha Lincoln, a professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University.
“I don’t think most Americans are comfortable with that. I think most would like to see real action from their leaders in the culture on these ubiquitous issues,” added Lincoln, who saw a similar “policy vacuum” in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With COVID-19, American society has even begun to accept the deaths of children from a preventable cause. Pediatrician Mark W. Kline wrote in a column for The Advocate newspaper that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19 and recalled the days of pediatrics “when children weren’t supposed to die.”
“There was no acceptable death toll,” he wrote. “At least not before the first pandemic of the social media era, COVID-19, changed everything.”
Gun violence is such a part of life in America now that we organize our lives around its inevitability, said Sonali Rajan, a Columbia University professor who studies violence in schools. Children hold lockdown drills in schools. In half the states, Rajan says, teachers can carry weapons in case defense is necessary. She points out that some 100,000 people are shot annually and that 40,000 die.
She sees a similar dynamic in the current response to COVID-19. Americans, she says, “deserve to be able to travel to work without getting sick, or work somewhere without getting sick, or send their children to school without getting sick.”
It’s important, he says, to ask what policies are being put forth by elected officials who have the power to “look after the health and well-being of their constituents.”
“It’s amazing how that responsibility has been abandoned. That is how I would describe it,” Rajan said.
The level of concern about the deaths often depends on the context, explained Rajiv Sethi, a professor of economics at Barnard College. He points to the dramatic but rare events, like a plane crash, that people seem to care about the most.
Sethi points out that there are more gun suicides in the United States than there are homicides: about 24,000 gun suicides compared to 19,000 homicides. However, while there are policy proposals that could help within the confines of the constitutional right to own guns, he added, the firearms debate is politically mired, causing “paralysis.”
“We are divided by the fact that people think there is nothing they can do,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Ranney highlights the false narratives spread by ill-intentioned people, such as those that deny that the deaths were preventable, or even suggest that those who died deserved it. In the United States there is an emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s health, she says. “It’s not that we’re putting less value on an individual life, but that we’re running into the limits of that approach,” she said.
In reality, he added, any individual death or disability affects the community.
Similar debates occurred in the last century over child labor laws, labor protections, and reproductive rights, while in the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis, there was a lack of political will to respond in an environment where discrimination against gays abounded. Wrigley-Field points out that the activists managed to mobilize a campaign that forced people to change the way they thought and forced politicians to change the way they operated.
“I don’t think those things are out of the question now. It’s just that it’s not really clear if they’re going to emerge” again, she stressed. “I don’t think giving up is a permanent state of affairs, but I think that’s where we are right now.”