Is mass death now tolerated in America?
Is mass death now tolerated in America?

Is mass death now tolerated in America?

After mass shootings killed and injured people who shopped groceries, went to church and simply lived their lives last weekend, the nation marked a milestone of 1 million deaths as a result of COVID-19. The figure that was once unthinkable is now an irreversible reality in the United States – just like the persistent reality of gun violence that kills tens of thousands of people every year.

Americans have always tolerated high rates of death and suffering – among certain sections of society. But the sheer number of deaths from preventable causes, and the apparent acceptance that no policy change is on the way, raise the question: Has mass death been accepted in America?

“I think the evidence is unmistakable and pretty clear. We will tolerate a huge amount of carnage, suffering and death in the United States because we have done so over the last two years. We have our history, ”said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and professor at Yale, who was previously a leading member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP.

“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, the American response to COVID-19 has a kind of … it’s kind of the American grotesque, right?” says Gonsalves. “Really – a million people are dead? And you want to talk to me about your need to get back to normal when most of us have mostly lived a reasonable life for the last six months?”

Certain societies have always borne the majority of higher death rates in the United States. There are deep racial and class inequalities in the United States, and our tolerance for death is based in part on who is at risk, says Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies mortality.

“Some people’s deaths mean a lot more than others,” she laments. “And I think that’s what we see in this really brutal way with this coincidence of timing.”

In Buffalo, the alleged shooter was a racist who was intent on killing as many black people as he could, according to authorities. The family of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, one of 10 people killed there in an attack on a grocer serving African American society, channeled millions of grief and frustration as they demanded action, including the passage of a bill on hate crimes and accountability to those who spread hateful rhetoric.

“You expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again – again, forgive and forget,” her son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., told reporters. “While people we choose and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us, not to consider ourselves equal.”

The feeling – that politicians have done little, even if the violence is repeated – is shared by many Americans. It is a dynamic encapsulated by the “thoughts and prayers” offered to victims of gun violence by politicians who are unwilling to make meaningful commitments to ensure that there really is no “never again”, according to Martha Lincoln, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University who studies public health cultural policy.

“I do not think most Americans are comfortable with that. I think most Americans would like to see real action from their leaders in the culture on these pervasive issues,” says Lincoln, adding that there is a similar “Political vacuum” around COVID-19.

The high number of deaths due to COVID-19, weapons and other causes is difficult to discern and can begin to feel like background noise, interrupted by the people whose lives were lost and the families whose lives were changed forever.

FILE – This May 13, 2020 image, made with a fisheye lens, shows a list of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Salt Lake County early in the coronavirus pandemic at the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City.

With COVID-19, American society has even come to accept the death of children for a preventable cause. In a recent guest column published in The lawyer the newspaper, the pediatrician Dr. Mark W. Kline that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite the “myth” that it is harmless to children. Kline wrote that there was a time in pediatrics where “children should not die.”

“There was no acceptable pediatric body count,” he wrote. “At least not before the first pandemic of the social media age, COVID-19, changed everything.”

There are many parallels between the U.S. response to COVID-19 and its response to the gun violence epidemic, says Sonali Rajan, a professor at Columbia University who researches school violence.

“We have long normalized mass death in this country. Gun violence has persisted as a public health crisis for decades, ”she says, noting that an estimated 100,000 people are shot each year and about 40,000 will die.

Gun violence is such a part of life in America now that we organize our lives around its inevitability. Children do lockdown exercises in school. And in about half of the states, Rajan says, teachers are allowed to carry firearms.

When she looks at the current reaction to COVID-19, she sees similar dynamics. Americans, she says, “deserve to be able to commute to work without getting sick, or work somewhere without getting sick, or send their children to school without getting sick.”

“What will happen if more and more people become ill and disabled?” she asks. “What’s going on? Are we just going to live like this for the foreseeable future?”

It is important, she says, to ask what policies are put forward by elected officials who have the power to “pay attention to the health and well-being of their constituents.”

“It’s remarkable how that responsibility has somehow been abdicated, that’s how I would describe it,” Rajan says.

The level of concern about death often depends on context, says Rajiv Sethi, an economics professor at Barnard College who has written about both gun violence and COVID-19. He points to a rare but dramatic event, such as a plane crash or an accident at a nuclear power plant, that seems to matter to people.

On the other hand, something like traffic fatalities gets less attention. The government said this week that nearly 43,000 people had died on the country’s roads last year, the highest level in 16 years. The federal government unveiled a national strategy earlier this year to combat the problem.

Even when talking about gun violence, the Buffalo shooting has received a lot of attention, but mass shootings represent a small number of the gun deaths that happen in the United States each year, Sethi says. For example, there are more gun suicides in America than there are homicides, an estimated 24,000 gun suicides compared to 19,000 homicides. But while there are political proposals that can help within the framework of the second amendment, he says, the debate on weapons is politically entrenched.

“The result is that nothing is done,” Sethi says. “The result is paralysis.”

Dr. Megan Ranney of Brown University’s School of Public Health calls it a frustrating “learned helplessness.”

“There’s almost been a persistent narrative created by some who tell people that these things are inevitable,” says Ranney, an emergency physician who researched gun violence before COVID-19 struck. “It divides us when people think there’s nothing they can do.”

She wonders if people really understand the large number of people dying from guns, from COVID-19 and from opioids. The CDC said this month that more than 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses by 2021, setting a record.

Ranney also points to false narratives spread by bad actors, such as denying that the deaths could have been prevented, or suggesting that those who die deserved it. There is an emphasis in the US on individual responsibility for one’s health, says Ranney – and a tension between the individual and society.

“It’s not because we place less value on an individual’s life, but rather we encounter the limits of that approach,” she says. “Because the truth is that every individual’s life, every individual’s death or disability, actually affects the larger society.”

Similar debates have taken place in the last century on child labor legislation, worker protection and reproductive rights, Ranney says.

An understanding of history is important, says Wrigley-Field, who teaches the history of ACT UP in one of its classes. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the White House press secretary made anti-gay jokes when asked about AIDS, and everyone in the room laughed. Activists were able to mobilize a mass movement that forced people to change the way they thought and forced politicians to change the way they operated, she says.

“I do not think those things are off the table now. It’s just that it’s not really clear if they’re going to show up,” said Wrigley-Field. “I do not think giving up is a permanent state. But I think that’s where we’re at right now. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.