A grim milestone of 500,000 dead
Covid Memorial DC (screenshot CSPAN)

Stunningly, a year into coronavirus, we've reached 500,000 American deaths—and climbing, particularly since November.

That as many people as live in Miami, Atlanta, Omaha or Oakland, all gone in a single year, a disproportionate number of deaths—many avoidable—in the best medically equipped nation on the planet.

The marker is effectively reflected as accelerating graduated dots in a New York Times graphic.

The pandemic has shut our schools and restaurants, killed jobs, interrupted our intimate relationships. It has ended going to the movies, created the Zoom cocktail hour, and made life more isolated.

It's a moment that cannot pass without some solemn reflection, without thinking about personal loss and the effect on our nation and culture. The pandemic has shut our schools and restaurants, killed jobs, interrupted our intimate relationships. It has ended going to the movies, created the Zoom cocktail hour, and made life more isolated.

There's little doubt that the failure to deal effectively with the pandemic was a major factor in ending Donald Trump and creating more exacting expectations for competence from Joe Biden and from governors who had been perceived as doing well on our behalf.

And yet, even as the vaccines are starting to kick in on a wide basis, we still can't find a true national consensus that we should be doing the basics of public health—mask-wearing and distancing—even as we wait, endlessly, for some return of life as we knew it. Some 500,000 deaths in, our national monument to pandemic efforts is a mask that substantial numbers of Americans won't agree to wear in the name of personal liberty and convenience.

We still have people who won't acknowledge that there is a pandemic at all, as the oft-played videos of mask-less beaches, bars and grocery stores in Florida or California attest.

How high does this death toll need to get for us to learn?

We're Doing Better

We all have stories of people we've lost, or watched afar as they were hospitalized. News outlets single out some in an attempt to keep a human face on an unforgiving contagion. In Biden, we've elected a replacement president who actually believes in empathy, and whose first steps included using a Washington Mall light display (will it become permanent?) to provide a simple moment of communal recognition of loss.

It's a lot better memorial than the lasting images of a president pushing off-label use of hydroxychloroquine or injecting bleach to forestall the disease – all based on his gut rather than Science.

After some fits and starts – including the push and pull over who gets proper credit – the vaccine campaign is well underway, though vulnerable to the ease or not in finding a location for inoculation, the number of vaccinators, sites and the effects of weather on transportation. Still, more than 40 million shots have been administered, the third vaccine maker is about to get federal emergency use approval, we finally have official laboratory eyes on the mutations expected from such a virus.

We have promises still being matched with performance on delivering the vaccine to neighborhoods where they are most needed, even as we are uncovering more and more schemes by individuals and areas of wealth to circumvent the lines. We're still arguing about which front-line workers, teachers and educators or cops and grocery workers are supposed to go before the other.

We have some longer-term health studies started, but the disease is proving more squirrelly than we had hoped. China is still screwing around with hidden information about the origin of the pandemic, and the bigger countries are taking care of their own populations before worrying about areas of the globe that are not as able to buy the vaccines.

In short, we're finally righting a ship that ran aground on the shoals of delay and political gain, but we still are aiming at the rocky shore. Experts disagree, of course, but we're headed for a return of much of our lives now by the fall, with vaccines to all who want them completed in six or seven months – quite an achievement if you can lift above the impatience.

Still, Where's the Will?

Through polls, calls to leaders and public anger, most Americans say they are ready for the government to be taking Big Action on jobs and economic aid to get us through this period. In that regard, it seems nuts to see the usual conservative-liberal politics governing our national healing.

That preventing the eviction of millions, or the extension of unemployment payments or money to ensure that there is continuing pandemic research is depending on a vote or two in the U.S. Senate seems way out of line. We elected a government to deal with this, let's now hold them to doing so, and give them the tools to make it work.

What is the legacy of a country that wants someone else to deal with problems from disease and health to guns, but not to provide the wherewithal to make it work? How does it work that teachers should go back to work in schools that lack ventilation or that, magically, Broadway and concert arenas or organized baseball should return right now without a care about public health preparation?

Our addiction to conflict over pulling together to solve a communal problem has become almost as much a problem as the pandemic itself. That we have reached 500,000 should be telling us that our history will be about impatience and division along tribal lines, a communal hesitance to address our most central problems.

Whatever the final number of American deaths, we may have met our ultimate enemy: It is us, the very people whose creativity and get-it-done attitudes could fix anything if we want to do so. With 500,000 deaths, the question is whether we have the will to get the job done or just rather fight.