Of countless coronavirus milestones, it was the perhaps the grimmest yet, but it was barely a footnote in the news.
There have been more COVID-19 deaths than all of the sailors entombed in the shattered hull of the battleship Arizona. More than the Marines killed holding the jungles of Guadalcanal, assaulting the beaches of Tarawa and capturing the volcanic hell of Iwo Jima. More than those lost at sea defending Midway and the Leyte Gulf. More deaths than all the American servicemen sacrificed in the grinding, months-long campaign for Okinawa. More than the deaths from tank battles in Tunisia and artillery barrages at Anzio. More than the paratroopers lost jumping into the Normandy darkness and the soldiers cut down on the blood-soaked shore of Omaha Beach. More than the tens of thousands who fell from the skies over Europe, shredded by flak and fighter planes. More than those who perished assaulting bridges in Holland, defending the frozen crossroads of Bastogne, or punching through the Siegfried Line.
More deaths than all of them, combined. It happened in less than twelve months.
More than 291,00 Americans died in combat over four years in World War II. We eclipsed that staggering figure in early December and then blew past the 300,000 mark without pause, with months to go before a COVID armistice might be declared.
Notably, a few of those we lost this year were actually World War II veterans, among the last of a much-heralded generation. Their last comforts were perhaps some kind words or a compassionate hug from an exhausted nurse, covered head-to-toe in a sterile gown and plastic face shield.
We honor our Second World War sacrifices with monuments and museums, with national lore and blockbuster cinema. But what of the victims in our current national tragedy? Do they matter less?
We’re not technically at war, but this conflict’s impact on society will be equally profound.
Lest we forget, this pandemic is history, every bit as much as the Civil War, the World Wars or the Cold War. Its medical advances will inform future public health strategy, the economic fallout will be global, the divisions and recriminations will reverberate for a generation or more.
Disease has arguably altered human history as much or more than all human warfare. In 541 A.D., the Plague of Justinian ravaged Europe, Asia and Africa, killing tens of millions. The Black Plague decimated the Old World again in the 1300s. Fifty million or more indigenous Americans died from pathogens introduced by Europeans, and another 50 million worldwide fell to the Spanish Flu.
“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic,” Stalin supposedly said. No matter how high COVID fatalities climb, the pandemic is just not real to some. They resist the most common sense precautions or physically threaten public health officials who dare to invoke mask mandates or gathering limitations. Stoked by rabid media figures, they resist reality itself. More than a few of our losses, while not literal combat deaths, have been the result of us fighting ourselves. We should have done so much better.
For several months I have served as a public information officer for our county. I worked with a team of dedicated employees and emergency managers, trying to convey useful information and promote safe behavior. At times it seemed an exercise in futility, cursed by cultural divisions, apathy and denial. Our efforts were improvised hastily, and not always as effective as they could have been. But I think we at least reminded people that their personal efforts and sense of responsibility do matter. Our local leaders have struggled to balance economics, education and personal freedom with public safety, an unenviable position and a largely thankless job. Our healthcare professionals and first responders have held the line, knowing that regional medical resources are in a precarious position. They’re still fighting. They are our true warriors.
So far, we have been wounded but not overrun by the enemy. That could change at any moment. Many of you have kept your heads down and heeded the warnings. Thank you. But as casualties around us mount, the grim news can fall on deaf ears. Because locally, it just doesn’t seem that bad. We hear the guns in the distance, but think we’re far from the front lines, so we’ll be okay. Maybe, maybe not. I get it, we’re all so over it. We long to gather, travel, or just hug somebody. We want to feel normal.
A vaccine has arrived, but distribution will be slow. There’s an end in sight, but we’re not there yet. So please, please people, continue to take it seriously. Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Nobody wants to be the last one to die in the war.