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As coronavirus death toll hits 100,000, how many more are we willing to lose?

by | May 27, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 4 comments

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:

Ourselves.

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.

Apparently not.

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.

Acceptable losses.

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: malbom@freepress.com. 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.

4 Comments

  1. redwingsfantoo

    Mitch, so you are one of the converted that believes flattening the curve saves lives? When this all broke out, the scientists explained that flattening the curve was to reduce the strain on the healthcare system. That this virus, like those before it and those to come, will run their course no matter how long it takes. Your stance on Sweden and the money hungry people, that supposedly sacrificed lives only holds water if you can actually prevent the virus from spreading. But, in reality of flattening the curve, the number of infected and those that may die from it are only delayed by time and not prevented. As long as we are not over taxing our healthcare system, those numbers are inevitable without a cure. So, is your stance we should remain sheltered until one is discovered? That doesn’t seem plausible, since this is related to SARS2 and we haven’t had much success in defeating the flu either.

    Reply
  2. Banker1

    Hi Mitch,
    I’m a regular reader of your column and while I don’t agree with everything you write I still enjoy reading what you have to say. I normally do not respond to anyone’s column or writings. However, I think we can agree to disagree. In your column that you wrote 0n Wednesday May 27, 2020 regarding Corona virus Pandemic…I felt you wrote the column with somewhat of a political slant. I got the impression the president in your opinion was going to be responsible for future deaths because of pushing for the country to open up its economy. We do agree that every life does matter…whether that life is lost in war, or from the virus. Is one type of death more horrific than another …do their loved ones not miss them as much or mourn for them as much…I think we both know the answer to that…I think you are being a little hypocritical in your column …are you writing about the deaths caused by the virus or you own political viewpoint about Trumps handling of opening up the country. I agree with many things that you said in the column. However, I think you forget one important thing…People need to feel a level of self-worth …they need money to buy things to survive…Remember you write a column …you can do that in your bathroom even in your closet and still get paid…your life goes on as normal…you are one of the lucky ones…most are not as fortunate as you…I do not begrudge you for your good fortune but don’t condemn those who are not as fortunate as you…They too want to get back to their working lives and feel like you and I. I like you, am fortunate, I’m retired and have no worries about going back to work or worry where my next meal will come from…we are a few of the fortunate ones in that position versus the many who are not.
    Mitch, If this was not a political slam… why did you not mention our infamous governor who’s own husband tried to skirt around his wife’s own rules and then she tried to pawn it off as a “BAD JOKE”…the bad joke is her administration…I find it quite a coincidence that she was not very well known in the other 49 states until she was rumored to be Joe Biden’s running mate…then all of a sudden she appears on tv, radio and all of a sudden becomes the enforcer for the state of Michigan…give me a break.
    If your column was truly a column of COVID – 19 and the deaths associated with the deaths…Mitch what is your solution…wait for a vaccine… Even when researchers find a vaccine that works against the new corona virus, it could be 12 to 18 months at best before it’s ready for the public. That’s only a fraction of the usual time. Are we supposed to stay home, wear a mask for that time frame? Let’s assume for a moment we do as I think you are suggesting…how long do we hibernate for…You are dreaming if you think the deaths will stop…I agree they will more than likely not accelerate, but we still will have deaths and now we really have an economy that’s anemic. Where do you suggest the states will get the revenue to run their states?
    Mitch, just for comparison, this year’s flu season is shaping up to be possibly less severe than the 2017-2018 seasons, when 61,000 deaths were linked to the virus. However, it could equal or surpass the 2018-2019 season’s 34,200 flu-related deaths….where was the outrage or as you state in your column…Are we willing to give up their lives because we don’t know them. REMEMBER: THERE IS A VACCINE FOR THE FLU…and people still die!
    Overall, the CDC estimates that 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010 can be blamed on the flu. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year. I guess those numbers aren’t large enough for you to close the country down. (Information provided: By Claire Gillespie Updated March 26, 2020 Health).
    From Wikipedia The following:
    Suicide is a major national public health issue in the United States. The country has one of the highest suicide rates among wealthy nations. In 2018, there were 48,344 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years. Due to the stigma surrounding suicide, it is suspected that suicide generally is underreported. In April 2016, the CDC released data showing that the suicide rate in the United States had hit a 30-year high, and later in June 2018, released further data showing that the rate has continued to increase and has increased in every U.S. state except Nevada since 1999. Surging death rates from suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism, what researchers refer to as “deaths of despair”, are largely responsible for a consecutive three year decline of life expectancy in the U.S. This constitutes the first three-year drop in life expectancy in the U.S. since the years 1915–1918.
    Mitch, I guess since they killed themselves their deaths don’t count. The country’s economy never closed down due to the FLU or Suicide deaths. Why, do you think it has something to do with how the press reports it?

    Mitch, so I need to ask you, are you concerned by the number of deaths this virus has caused, if that was the case, I don’t recall any articles that you have written about the FLU or SUICIDE deaths or is your motive to disapprove of Trumps handling and your dislike for him. It really does not matter because as individuals we each have an opinion whether we agree or disagree, that’s what is great about this country. However, there is a difference between my opinion and yours which differs greatly, mine is heard by my wife and now you, your opinions are heard by not only me but thousands who read you. Mitch, I had a boss that lived by this saying, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”.

    You work in an industry that can affect many individual lives and if you are wrong, you can say sorry and all is forgiven, but many won’t see your apology, many have already made up their minds based on what you wrote previously. Therefore, you have a lot of clout in molding people’s opinion. I realize editorials are opinion-based articles but many times are supported by research to support their opinion….I’m not sure your opinion was supported by many facts…but I enjoyed reading it never the less and more importantly, you got me to read it and just because I disagree with you I will continue to read you.

    Thanks for listening!

    Reply
  3. sansone22

    The more deaths from coronavirus the more you enjoy writing about it. Just like your welcoming immigrants to the USA, especially illegal immigrants. The more underclass, the more need for big government and your audience grows.
    Your point of view with all it’s drama makes for shallow intellectual curiosity. Why don’t you be honest and claim your role as Detroit’s chief of progressiveism? You pedal bad or sad news and your ratings go up. I’d like more honesty and full investigative research by seasoned journalists, such as yourself. Try being a cheerleader more often. Try identifying the facts on political issues . When you’ve made mistakes or didn’t recognize a published error…admit it. We are all in this crazy new world together. Let’s discuss our differences. We’ll discover honest patriotism. Good for us! Regards, sansone22

    Reply
  4. sansone22

    Mitch, I just reread the last words of your Memorial Day week article. “We have seen the enemy. We are carrying it.” You should be ashamed of yourself! Now I know I did the right thing by commenting yesterday. Get rid of your hatred. Spreading fear to your readers is propaganda they don’t need. I’m sure your readers prefer honest reporting. Regards, sansone22

    Reply

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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