Mentioned by the President of the United States and encouraged by cowardly commentators, many Americans have adamantly refused to give up on social gatherings, even though staying at home was the best way to prevent the virus from spreading. They refused to wear masks and laughed at and harassed the people who did. Some even now reject a vaccine that could prevent the virus from mutating into so many variants that there will be no hope of containing it. And they did everything, they insist, because they are patriots.
Covid deaths are counted so inconsistently that we may never know their true number, but according to one estimate, as many as 900,000 Americans have already died from the virus. If you exclude the Civil War, in which Americans fought on both sides, more Americans lost to Covid than in any of the other wars we have fought. Combined.
In short, the coronavirus pandemic has become a perfect illustration of James’ “moral equivalent of war”. We were not fighting a human enemy, but we were still fighting for our lives. This national calamity, this invasion by a destructive and unstoppable force, has been our chance to come together across all possible divisions. We could finally remember how to sacrifice on behalf of our fellow Americans, how to mourn together the unfathomable losses – not only of life but of safety, of comradeship, of the capacity for hope.
Many Americans – essential workers, first responders, hospital staff, teachers, and many more – have lost their lives because they made such sacrifices. Millions more have readily complied with measures designed to keep the most vulnerable among us safe. But too many of us haven’t. Too many people were hostile to the very idea that they should change their behavior even in the smallest way for the sake of strangers.
But for these “patriots”, perhaps we could now imagine the proclamation of a different kind of Memorial Day, a day that commemorates not the self-sacrifice in war, but the lives we saved by coming together for serve the same cause. If Vietnam blew up the undisputed commitment to national service, the coronavirus pandemic should have been the very thing to bring it back.
The fact that he did the exact opposite tells us something about who we are as human beings and who we are as a nation. There is more to mourn today than I ever realized.
Margaret Renkl is an opinion writer covering flora, fauna, politics, and culture in the Southern United States. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the upcoming “Graceland, Finally: Notes on Hope and Sorrow in the Southern United States”.
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