As the nation marked 1 million deaths from COVID-19 last week, the milestone was marked by mass shootings that killed people simply living their lives: grocery shopping, going to church or attend fourth grade. The once unthinkable number is now an irreversible reality in the United States – as is the lingering 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 segments of society. But the sheer number of deaths from preventable causes, and the apparent acceptance that no policy change is on the horizon, begs the question: Has mass death become accepted in America?
“I think the evidence is unequivocal and quite clear. We will tolerate an enormous amount of carnage, suffering and death in the United States, because we have done so for the past two years. We have finished our story,” says Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and Yale professor who, before that, was a leading member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. He made his comments in an interview last week, ahead of the latest elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people were killed on Tuesday, including 19 children.
“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, the American response to COVID-19 has kind of…it’s a form of American grotesque, isn’t it?” said Gonsalves. “Really – a million people died? And you’re gonna tell me about your need to get back to normal, when most of us have been living pretty reasonable lives for six months? »
Some communities have always borne the brunt 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 partly based on who is at risk, said Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies mortality. .
“The deaths of some people matter a lot more than others,” she lamented in an interview last week. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing in this really brutal way with this coincidence of timing.”
In the May 14 shooting in Buffalo, New York, the suspected shooter was a racist determined to kill as many black people as possible, authorities say. The family of Ruth Whitfield, 86, one of 10 people killed in an attack on a grocery store that served the African-American community, channeled the grief and frustration of millions as they demanded action, including including passing a Hate Crimes Bill. and the accountability of those who spread hateful rhetoric.
“You expect us to keep doing this over and over and over – over and over, forgive and forget,” his son, former Buffalo Fire Marshal Garnell Whitfield, Jr., told reporters. “While the people we elect and trust in office in this country are doing their best not to protect us, not to see us as equals.”
Within days of the Buffalo shooting, a man 1,700 miles in Texas legally purchased an AR-style rifle, then another, along with 375 rounds, according to senators briefed by law enforcement. He then led the attack on Robb Elementary. Only 10 days had passed.
The sense that politicians have done little even as the violence repeats itself is shared by many Americans. It’s a dynamic that is epitomized 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 will be no more “more ever,” according to Martha Lincoln, professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University. who studies cultural public health policies.
“I don’t think most Americans feel good about it. I think most Americans would like to see real action from their leaders in the culture on these pervasive issues,” said Lincoln, who spoke ahead of the Texas school attack, adding that he a similar “policy vacuum” exists around COVID. -19.
The high death toll from COVID-19, guns and other causes is difficult to understand and can start to sound like background noise, disconnected from the people whose lives were lost and the families whose lives were lost. life was changed forever.
American society has even come to accept the death of children from preventable causes.
In a recent column published in The Advocate newspaper, pediatrician Dr. Mark W. Kline pointed out that more than 1,500 children have died from COVID-19, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite the “myth that it is harmless to children. Kline wrote that there was a time in pediatrics when “kids weren’t supposed to die.”
“There was no acceptable pediatric count,” he wrote. “At least not until the first pandemic of the social media era, COVID-19, changed everything.”
There are many parallels between America’s response to COVID-19 and its response to the gun violence epidemic, according to Sonali Rajan, a Columbia University professor who studies school violence.
“We have long normalized mass death in this country. Gun violence has persisted as a public health crisis for decades,” she said last week, noting that around 100,000 people are shot each year and some 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 confinement exercises at school. And in about half of the states, Rajan said, teachers are allowed to carry guns.
When she examines the current response to COVID-19, she sees a similar dynamic. Americans, she said, “deserve to be able to get to work without getting sick, or to work somewhere without getting sick, or to send their children to school without them getting sick.”
“What will happen if more and more people get sick and are disabled? ” she asked. “What’s happening? Are we just living like this for the foreseeable future?
It’s important, she said, to ask what policies are put forward by elected officials who have the power to “ensure the health and well-being of their constituents.”
“It’s remarkable how much of that responsibility has kind of been let go, which is how I would describe it,” Rajan said.
The level of concern about deaths often depends on the context, says Rajiv Sethi, an economics professor at Barnard College who has written on both gun violence and COVID-19. It evokes a rare but dramatic event like a plane crash or an accident at a nuclear power plant, which seems to matter to people.
On the other hand, something like road deaths attracts less attention. The government said last week that nearly 43,000 people 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, mass shootings get a lot of attention but represent a small number of the gun deaths that occur in the United States each year, Sethi said in an interview last week. For example, there are more gun suicides in America than there are homicides, about 24,000 gun suicides versus 19,000 homicides. But even if there are policy proposals that could help within the confines of the Second Amendment, he says, the gun debate is politically entrenched.
“The result is nothing is done,” Sethi said. “The result is paralysis.”
Dr. Megan Ranney of Brown University’s School of Public Health calls it frustrating “learned helplessness.”
“There’s almost been a sustained narrative created by some that tells people these things are inevitable,” said Ranney, an emergency physician who researched gun violence before COVID-19 hit, speaking before Tuesday’s shooting at a Texas school ended 21 lives. “It divides us when people think they can’t do anything.”
She wonders if people really understand the sheer number of people dying from guns, COVID-19 and opioids. The CDC said this month that more than 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, setting a record.
Ranney also points to false narratives spread by bad actors, such as denying the deaths were preventable or suggesting those who die deserved it. In the United States, the focus is on individual responsibility for one’s health, Ranney said — and a tension between the individual and the community.
“It’s not that we place less value on an individual life, but rather that we are running into the limits of this approach,” she said. “Because the truth is that any individual’s life, any individual’s death or disability, does in fact affect the community at large.”
Similar debates took place in the last century over child labor laws, worker protections and reproductive rights, Ranney said.
An understanding of history is important, said Wrigley-Field, who teaches ACT UP history in one of her classes. During the AIDS crisis in 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 think and politicians to change the way they operate, she said.
“I don’t think those things are on the table now. It’s just not really clear if they’re going to emerge,” Wrigley-Field said. “I don’t think giving up is a permanent situation. But I think that’s where we are right now.
Michelle R. Smith is a journalist with the Associated Press, based in Providence. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/mrsmithap