PROVIDENCE, RI – After mass shootings killed and injured people grocery shopping, going to church and just living their lives last weekend, the nation passed a mile of 1 million deaths from COVID-19. Stone marked. This number, once unimaginable, is now an irreversible reality in the United States—such as the persistent reality of gun violence that kills thousands of people a year.
Americans have always endured high rates of death 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 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? “
Some communities have always borne the brunt of high mortality rates. There are deep racial and class inequalities in the United States, and our tolerance of death is partly based on risk, said Elizabeth Wrigley-field, a sociology professor who studies mortality at the University of Minnesota.
“The deaths of some people matter a lot more than others,” she laments. “I think that’s what we’re seeing in a really brutal way with this coincidence of timing.”
In Buffalo, the alleged shooter was racist for killing black people, according to officials. The family of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, one of 10 killed, channeled the grief and frustration of millions by calling for action.
“You expect us to keep doing this over and over again – over and over again, forgive and forget,” said his son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, Jr. “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, professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University, it is a sentiment from the “thoughts and prayers” given to victims of gun violence by politicians reluctant to change policies.
“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 lives with COVID-19. sees a similar “political void” around.
With COVID-19, American society has come to accept the death of children as a preventable cause. Pediatrician Dr. Mark W. Kline wrote in a guest column for The Advocate newspaper that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19, and recalled a time in pediatrics when “children shouldn’t 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 gun violence is such a part of life in America now that we organize our lives around its inevitability. Children do lockdown drills at school. And in about half of the states, Rajan says, teachers can carry firearms. She notes that an estimated 100,000 people are shot annually and that about 40,000 will die.
She sees similar dynamics in 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.”
It is important, she says, to ask what policies are being introduced 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, professor of economics at Barnard College. He points to a rare but dramatic event, such as an airplane crash, that matters to people.
Sethi notes that the number of gun suicides in the US is higher than homicides, 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, leading to “paralysis.”
“It divides us when people think they can’t do anything,” says Dr. Megan Rainey of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Rainey 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, says Rainey.
“It’s not that we underestimate a personal life, but that we’re coming up against the limits of that approach,” she says.
In truth, she says, any individual’s death or disability affects the community.
Similar debates about child labor laws, worker protections and reproductive rights took place over the past century, while during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, there was a lack of political will to address it in an environment where anti-gay discrimination was rampant. Was. Wrigley-field notes activists were able to organize a movement that forced people to change their way of thinking and politicians to change the way they worked.
“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.”