After mass shootings last weekend killed and injured people who went to church and just lived their lives last weekend, the nation marked a milestone in 1 million deaths from COVID-19. The numbers, once unimaginable, have now become an irreversible reality in the United States, as is the enduring reality of gun violence, which kills tens of thousands of people each year.
Americans have always suffered high levels of death and suffering – among some sections of society. But the large number of deaths from preventable causes, and the clear recognition that no change in policy is imminent, raises the question: has mass death become accepted in America?
“I think the evidence is infallible and quite clear. We will suffer a huge amount of carnage, suffering and death in the US because we have for the last two years. We have a long history, ”said Greg Gonçalves, an epidemiologist and professor at Yale University who was previously a leading member of the ACT UP AIDS advocacy group.
“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, then America’s reaction to COVID-19 was like … it’s a form of American grotesque, right?” Says Gonsalves. “Really – a million people died? And are you going to talk to me about the fact that you need to return to a normal life, when most of us have been living a pretty smart life for the last six months? ”
Certain communities have always borne the brunt of the highest mortality rates in the United States. There is deep racial and class inequality in the United States, and our tolerance for death is based in part on those at risk, says Elizabeth Wrigley Field, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies mortality.
“The death of some people is much more important than others,” she complains. “And I think that’s what we see in such a very cruel way with such a coincidence of time.”
In Buffalo, the alleged shooter was a racist, prone to killing as many blacks as possible, according to authorities. The family of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, one of 10 people killed there in an attack on a grocery store serving the African-American community, has expressed grief and frustration to millions, demanding action including the passage of a hate crime bill. and responsibility for those who spread hateful rhetoric.
“You expect us to do it again and again and again – again, forgive and forget,” her son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., told reporters. “While the people we elect and trust in offices across the country are doing their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal.”
Many Americans share this feeling – that politicians have done little, even when violence is repeated. According to Martha Lincoln, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco, this is a dynamic that lies in “thoughts and prayers” that offer victims of gun violence to politicians who are unwilling to make significant commitments to ensure that “never there will be no more. ” who studies cultural health policy.
“I don’t think most Americans feel good about it. I think most Americans would like to see real action by their cultural leaders on these pervasive issues, ”said Lincoln, who added that there was a similar“ political vacuum ”around COVID-19.
The large number of deaths from COVID-19, weapons and other causes is difficult to understand, and they may begin to feel like background noise disconnected from individuals whose lives have been lost and families whose lives have been changed forever.
With COVID-19 American society has even come to terms with the death of children from preventable causes. In a recent guest column published in Lawyer newspaper, pediatrician Dr. Mark W. Klein noted that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite the “myth” that it is harmless to children. Klein wrote that in pediatrics there was a time when “children should not have died.”
“There was no acceptable pediatric number of corpses,” he wrote. “At least not before the first social media pandemic, COVID-19, changed everything.”
There are many parallels between the U.S. response to COVID-19 and their response to the armed violence epidemic, says Sanali Rajan, a professor at Columbia University who studies violence at school.
“We have long normalized mass deaths in this country. Gun violence has persisted as a public health crisis for decades, ”she said, noting that an estimated 100,000 people are shot and about 40,000 killed each year.
Armed violence is such a part of life in America now that we organize our lives around its inevitability. Children hold classes at school. And in about half of the states, Rajan says, teachers are allowed to carry firearms.
When she looks at the current reaction to COVID-19, she sees similar dynamics. Americans, she said, “deserve to be able to commute to work without getting sick, or work somewhere without getting sick, or send their children to school so they don’t get sick.”
“What will happen next if more people get sick and disabled?” She asks. “What happened? Are we just living in the foreseeable future?”
She says it is important to ask what policies are chosen by elected officials who have the right to “take care of the health and well-being of their constituents.”
“It’s amazing how they relieved me of this responsibility, as I would describe it,” says Rajan.
The level of concern about deaths often depends on the context, says Rajiv Seti, a professor of economics at Barnard College who has written on both gun violence and COVID-19. It points to rare but dramatic events such as a plane crash or a nuclear power plant accident that seem to matter to people.
On the contrary, something like the death of people in road accidents is given less attention. This week, the government said that nearly 43,000 people died on the country’s roads last year, the highest in 16 years. Earlier this year, the federal government unveiled a national strategy to combat the problem.
Even when talking about gun violence, the Buffalo shooting has attracted a lot of attention, but the mass shootings represent the small number of gun deaths that occur in the United States each year, Seti says. For example, America has more suicides due to guns than murders: an estimated 24,000 suicides with guns compared to 19,000 homicides. But while there are policy proposals that could help under the Second Amendment, he says the arms debate is politically entrenched.
“As a result, nothing is done,” says Sethi. “As a result – paralysis.”
Dr Megan Renny of Brown University School of Public Health calls it a frustration of “learned helplessness”.
“Some have created an almost long story that tells people that these things are inevitable,” said Renny, an ambulance doctor who conducted a study of gun violence before the COVID-19 strike. “It separates us when people think they can’t do anything.”
She wonders if people really understand the large number of people dying from guns, from COVID-19 and from opioids. The CDC said this month that more than 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, setting a record.
Renee also points to false stories spread by bad actors, such as denying that death could have been prevented, or believing that those who die deserve it. In the United States, the emphasis is on individual responsibility for one’s health, Renny says, and on tensions between the individual and society.
“It’s not that we value individual life less, but rather we face the limits of that approach,” she says. “Because the truth is that any person’s life, death or disability actually affects a large community.”
A similar debate has taken place in the last century about child labor laws, worker protection and reproductive rights, Renny says.
Understanding history is important, says Wrigley Field, who teaches ACT UP history in one of her classes. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a White House spokesman joked against gays when asked about AIDS and everyone in the room laughed. Activists have been able to mobilize a mass movement that has forced people to change the way they thought and forced politicians to change the way they operate, she says.
“I don’t think these things are out of the table right now. It’s just not clear if they will appear, “says Wrigley Field.” I don’t think giving up is a permanent state of affairs. But I think that’s where we are right now. “