The fact is as difficult to fathom as it is necessary to absorb: 500,000 American lives have been lost to a virus that was only named one year ago. That’s more than the U.S. death toll in World War II; it totals the first two full decades of AIDS casualties nationally. Despite being less than 5% of the world’s population, we’ve suffered more than a fifth of COVID-19 deaths globally. Many of those deaths happened in physical isolation, without a family’s loving solace. That has left a deep tear down the center of the fabric of the nation.
And none of this suffices to describe the damage done by a pathogen that under the microscope looks a lot like the common cold but that spreads and kills as few we’ve encountered since the advent of modern medicine.
As we hunkered down and masked up to protect ourselves and our loved ones, so jarring has this pandemic been to American life that people skipped cancer screenings and treatment, resulting in thousands of excess deaths; failed to tend to heart conditions, resulting in thousands more; and were likelier to abuse opioids and other dangerous substances. This month, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that just in the first half of 2020, the United States registered a full-year drop in average life expectancy.
As our bodies were battered, so have been our minds and spirits, with rates of anxiety and depression nearly quadrupling. Our economy nosedived, especially in places dependent on commuters and tourists and crowds. Our children strained to learn through computer screens, and, cut off from so much human contact, suffered yet to be understood psychological scars. Perhaps most profoundly, our nation, a place we long thought to be exceptional, was laid low by its discombobulated attempt to meet the challenge.
A half-million lives are gone, never to return. With vaccines making their way into bloodstreams, let us hope for a return of American confidence, this time enriched by hard-won wisdom and preparedness and the lessons of science.