Indignity Vol. 2, No. 40: One million served.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 40: One million served.

How Do We Count 300 Deaths From Covid?

WHAT DOES IT mean to anticipate a memorial? The front and the back of the Sunday New York Times were taken over by a package about the country reaching 1 million Covid deaths, with a somber black-and-white graphic placing a tiny dot for each lost life on a sprawling two-page map of the United States, so that the dots formed swaths of complete or near-complete black across all the population centers. The map of the deaths was the map of American life.

I'd been wondering what it would feel like when the millionth death arrived. I still don't know. Long ago, for the sake of convenience and consistency, I decided that when writing about the death toll, I'd just take my numbers from the Times figures, which are what Google pulls up in a handy interactive reference graph when I search "us covid death toll." As of Monday morning, the day after the Times mapped a million deaths, the count from the Times was 998,352.

That left 1,648 lives—a couple hundred more than the enrollment of my old high school—in the category of presumed dead, or as good as dead. Technically, factually, practically, they are dead, whoever they were. The counts are just numbers. The tally that NBC News is running hit 1 million on May 4, 11 days before the Times did its Sunday package. The Centers for Disease Control's reckoning of excess deaths in the course of the pandemic passed 1 million back in February.

The lesson of the milestone is that we can't even find the milestone under the pile of bodies. NBC called one million "a once unfathomable number"; the Times went with "a nation's immeasurable grief." "Unfathomable" and "immeasurable" are simply the truth: we don't know how many people are dead.

The day the one millionth American died of Covid, or will die of Covid, was or is or will be just another day. The virus spreads and mutates and the graph goes up and down and up again. The most recent day of deaths on the Google chart, as of Monday morning, was May 13, with 426 new fatalities and a seven-day average of 302. By pandemic standards, that's low. There were times we were losing a whole 9/11's worth of people each day. Now we're only losing the people from the planes, more or less.

Or more. The urgency to keep the count up to date has gone the way of all the other forms of urgency—the urgency to mask, the urgency to ventilate, the urgency to vaccinate, the urgency to test. The urgency to warn. The planes keep crashing, and new planes keep taking off. They crash into the map that the CDC decided to re-color green in the name of normalcy, a map which is nevertheless breaking out in yellow and red again all over the Northeast and the Great Lakes.

The White House and Congress still have not figured out how to pass their already slashed, already delayed next round of Covid funding. Politico reported last week that, unable to get the money, the Biden administration is considering "limiting access to its next generation of vaccines," and "quietly preparing to shift responsibility for other key parts of the pandemic response to the private sector":

The White House in recent months sought credit for effectively ending the crisis, touting its vaccination campaign and widespread distribution of tests and therapeutics as key to allowing most Americans to safely resume their everyday lives. Yet the administration has struggled simultaneously to make the case for pouring continued resources to fight the pandemic—with officials surprised by the level of Republican resistance and unwilling to hold up other legislative initiatives to use them as vehicles for getting Covid funding passed.

How many deaths are already dangling from that "Yet"? The administration decided to declare the pandemic crisis had ended—"officials view Biden’s ability to keep Covid under control as essential to the success of his presidency," Politico wrote—and is now surprised to find there is no sense of crisis around the pandemic anymore.

A million people have been successfully turned into a statistic. A thousand people are the noise in the statistic. Three or four hundred people are dead today who were alive the day before. You, the solitary person, are to do with this knowledge whatever you personally, individually decide suits you best.

The CDC is recommending the people in the red counties go back to wearing masks. In the yellow counties if you are concerned about yourself or someone near you being immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable, you may "consider" masking, or you may "talk to your healthcare provider" about it. New York City's health department has advised people they "should" wear a mask in indoor public spaces. They are not, however, officially mandating the masks. A mandate would mean that things are not back to normal.