Ask yourself this question: If America could return to normal life tomorrow, but one of your family members had to die, would you say OK?
I’m assuming the answer is no. Now, a second question: If America could return to normal life tomorrow, but a family member of your next-door neighbor had to die, would you then say yes?
How about someone on your block? Or someone in your town? At a certain point, as we pull the lens out, the honest answer for many Americans (although few will say it out loud) is, “I’ll take that deal.”
And that, sadly, is where we find ourselves this Memorial Day week, a holiday to mourn Americans who died in wars, which this year will mark 100,000 Americans dead from a new war — against a monster that attacks through the air, but is animated by unlikely foot soldiers:
The first American casualty was in February. The 100,000th before the end of May. That makes this coronavirus the fastest killer in U.S. history. World War II took four years to kill just over 400,000 of us. COVID-19 is a quarter of the way there in four months.
But then, this war is not about sending our young men and women overseas to defend us. This war is about shoppers, churchgoers, bar hoppers and partygoers, factory workers, hospital staff and police forces.
A war of the Everyman. We are all potential victims. And all potential killers. We forget the latter faster than the former, but it’s the truth, no matter how brightly the sun is shining, no matter how desperately we want to get to an open restaurant. We pass this disease to one another.
No one dies if no one spreads.
But siren calls are luring us from our safe zones. Money to be made. Work to be accomplished. Beaches to be visited. Nails and hair to be cut and beautified.
And our limited attention span, which already feels spent, is saying, “Enough. We’ve sacrificed. We’ve flattened the curve. We can’t go on this way.”
Throw in a president who seems to have pushed this pandemic aside to focus on more pressing matters — like getting himself reelected — and you have a Pied Piper leading us to the promise of happier days. But remember, in the original story, all the critters who followed the Pied Piper died.
Acceptable losses. It’s a military phrase that is suddenly civilian. In fact, I would argue, it’s the biggest issue facing the U.S. today. How many can be sacrificed? What’s the “dead” number we can live with?
Some thought 100,000 Americans — more casualties than every U.S. war from Vietnam forward combined! — would be a breaking point.
Our new normal
“Whoever saves one life, it’s as if he has saved the whole world.” That’s a well-known quote from the Talmud, made famous by the film “Schindler’s List.” But that same Talmudic text offers an adjunct quote, one you don’t hear as much: “Whoever destroys one life, it’s as if he destroys the whole world.”
There are people today who will confirm this idea. Like parents who have lost an otherwise healthy child to COVID-19, spouses who have lost an otherwise healthy husband or wife, children whose grandparents had survived all manner of things, from cancer to the Holocaust, only to be felled by a virus spreading carelessly through a nursing home.
For them, one life lost feels like a world gone. And yet we are impatient to get back to normal, as fast as possible — as long as it’s not someone in our inner circle who pays a deadly price.
Manufacturing plants are putting workers back on lines. Gyms — where people sweat and breathe heavily — are getting the green light in some states. The Ohio State University athletic director said he could see up to 50,000 fans in his football stadium this fall. Notre Dame’s president told the media, “We will be ready when students come back (on campus),” never addressing what happens when classes are over and those students want to party (and please don’t think they won’t).
“Enough partisan games. Open the economy!” President Donald Trump re-tweeted last week, as if this pandemic is masking an otherwise normal world.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, said his city was nearly out of ICU beds, even as his state opened movie theaters. In Mississippi, a church that had defied stay-at-home orders was burned to the ground. In Brazil, they are digging mass graves.
Does any of this sound like a normal world to you? There seems to be this notion that we have beaten this thing down because we’ve put in two whole months of sacrifice. Or, by the simple act of wearing a mask, we can do anything without worry.
But know this: The disease has not lost its potency. It has not grown tired, just because we have.
I asked Dr. Daniel Kaul, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan, a simple question: if tomorrow we went back to life as we knew it in February, when this first started, wouldn’t numbers of new infections and new deaths mirror what happened in those early weeks?
“Absolutely,” he said.
The war we still fight
And so, as we crack into the next mass wave of coronavirus deaths — we’ve been averaging around 1,200 per day recently — old and vulnerable citizens will have to hunker down, perhaps for a year, and others will have to decide what risks they are willing to take.
We could become Sweden, which left much of its country in full operation, took a herd immunity approach, and last week moved to the top of the heap of COVID-19 per capita death rate. Is that the crown we want to wear?
Or do we remain cautious, limit our exposure, while we wait for medications and vaccines, and save more souls? A troubling report from Columbia University last week suggested that if America had started social distancing just two weeks earlier, we could have avoided nearly a million COVID-19 cases and saved 54,000 lives.
Two weeks? And 54,000 of our family, friends, parents and children would still be here? Doesn’t that do something to your sense of patience? Or impatience?
Let’s face it. It’s easy to whine about not getting your hair cut when you haven’t lost a child to coronavirus. It’s easy to insist on getting back to your favorite bar when you haven’t watched your father die alone in a hospital bed on a cellphone held up by a nurse.
And since 100,000 deaths represents only three ten-thousandths of the country, the odds are overwhelming that most people won’t have experienced a COVID-19 loss of their own.
But caring about your fellow citizens means empathizing even when you haven’t walked in their shoes. Otherwise, no rich would ever help the poor. No majority would help a minority. No healthy would ever help the sick.
We are heading back into our lives this week. Restaurants and retail outlets and doctors’ offices and schools are all, slowly, being reintroduced to our routines.
But the disease is no less dangerous, and the cure is a long way off. Until that time, the only thing that will keep us safe is our own behavior. You can get this disease, not know you have it, act irresponsibly, spread it, and indirectly be responsible for someone’s death. If that doesn’t bother you, then you are either soulless, or a president who thinks it’s cute to not wear a mask in an auto plant where everyone else must.
In either case, heaven help you. “Acceptable loss” is not something man was meant to broker, not when human lives are the currency. On this Memorial Day week, we mourn those we have lost in war, but we should think hard about the war we are waging on ourselves and our most vulnerable. We have seen the enemy. We are carrying it.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.