A Tragedy Without Collective Grief
As we stumble forward in the pandemic, now in its third year, our nation is a tangle of conflicting emotions.
We are weary, boastful, angry, unrepentant, depressed, frightened, and “over it.” One thing is certain. We are bitterly divided.
We are divided by what we view as the truth.
We are divided by the measures we are willing to take to protect ourselves and others.
We are divided by what role we feel the government should play.
We are divided by the responsibilities the private sector should have in protecting public health.
We are divided by how we view those we deem to be on the “other side” of the divisions listed above.
What we have is a global tragedy that has been particularly devastating in terms of death and suffering to the United States. Officially the death count from COVID in this country is well over 850.000, and rising, with thousands more dying every day. We will never know the real count. It is likely higher. Maybe significantly so.
When this all started, the idea that it would leave so much death in its wake was inconceivable.
When this all started, the idea that it would leave so much death in its wake was inconceivable. In previous eras of tragedy, suffering has made this nation more unified. Tragedies of significant magnitude have a tendency to do that by pulling at the inherent bonds of our common humanity. But not this time.
There has been no shortage of grief on the individual level, as this virus has torn through families and communities. But any collective grief on a national level long ago became another casualty of COVID. We can’t even agree that this is a tragedy. And that leaves me with a deep and profound sadness.
There are of course many reasons for this. From the beginning, this virus was politicized by a president and his willing and eager enablers. A political party already increasingly hostile to science, expertise, and responsibility, was eager to use even a deadly virus as a means to attack its opposition. Its propaganda machinery whipped into gear and suddenly masking and other methods of controlling spread, and then inconceivably life saving vaccines, were turned into litmus tests of ideological purity.
The uncertainty of a rapidly changing and elusive viral enemy was weaponized by actors of bad faith.
Scientists were demonized. And the uncertainty of a rapidly changing and elusive viral enemy was weaponized by actors of bad faith to undermine the communal actions that are necessary to save lives in the midst of such contagion.
To be sure, the virus has reminded us that science is not a single set of facts. It is a body of ever-evolving knowledge, often reliant on incomplete and inconclusive data. Scientists, doctors, and public health officials often disagreed to some extent on the best policy - over such things as closing schools, when to administer booster shots, and how restrictive our preventive measures should be. Looking back, much of our actions could and maybe should have been reconsidered. Although it is frustrating, that is the way science works. But that has only sharpened our divide.
Now that we have remarkably effective vaccines, there is a tendency among those who have been vaccinated to be very frustrated with those who have not. And this has extended, at times, to many expressing a lack of empathy for those who are suffering from severe cases of a deadly disease whose severity is now almost completely preventable. The truth is that almost everyone who is dying today is unvaccinated. And that means that most of these deaths should not have happened.
We may wonder how people can be so foolish, so reckless, so gullible, so selfish as to not get vaccinated.
This anger among the vaccinated is understandable. The unvaccinated do not only harm themselves, they make the spread of this virus easier and put those for whom the vaccines don’t provide sufficient protection, such as the immunocompromised, at extra risk. We may wonder how people can be so foolish, so reckless, so gullible, so selfish as to not get vaccinated. It is indeed infuriating. And that is only exacerbated by the fact that many of these unvaccinated people are proud of their status and use it to attack and belittle their political enemies.
Sadly propaganda can have a powerful control over the human mind. Our anger should be especially directed at those who know better - the talk show hosts and politicians, many of whom are vaccinated, who have infected their followers with nonsense. Vaccines have joined such things as the “stolen election” in the toxic stew of lies, bad faith, false equivalence, hubris, and divisiveness peddled by those who wield their power by making the United States less united.
Nevertheless, I am left today primarily thinking of all who have died, as well as those suffering from long covid, and those who may suffer in the years ahead in ways we cannot predict. This could have been a moment when we decided to step outside of our divided camps and come together. That the blame for this not happening is so asymmetric along the political divide does make me very angry, but it doesn’t make me any less sad.
People are dead. Seats at dinner tables will forever be empty. Children will never get another hug from a parent or grandparent. The measures to protect ourselves - the separation, the events foregone, the life moments missed - carry their own pain. So many had to die alone. Medical professionals, in the time before the vaccine especially, rushed into help with little personal protection. Many died as a result of their service. We can and should grieve for all of this.
Ultimately, I also grieve for my country that we are so unable to grieve together.
Ultimately, I also grieve for my country that we are so unable to grieve together. I understand the frustration as the pandemic continues its waves. I understand why people are desperate to move on. I feel it personally. I am at a point in my life when each day is a blessing. I would have rather spent the last few years very differently from how it has been. But the virus doesn’t give a damn about what we feel. It exploits our divisions. And that is another reason to grieve.
Perhaps, when the virus finally subsides, when we can look back with a distance from the passions that animate us now, we can find some common ground. I fear that the divides over vaccines and the preventability of death will make that difficult. But I hope that ultimately our humanity will prevail. We will see that the tragedy was both the virus and the divisions it hardened, which only increased its potency. And for that we will be able to grieve, together.