More than two years after the start of the pandemic, the United States has reached a staggering milestone: 1 million Americans dead from Covid-19.
Since March 2020, the coronavirus has radically reshaped life. We live in a limbo of individualized choices. Each state, workplace, and person has adopted different norms of masking, distancing, and communing. The pandemic has been different for each of us.
Research varies, but estimates show that a majority of Americans know someone who has been hospitalized from or died of Covid. That toll is higher for Black and Hispanic Americans. (As my colleague Jackie Flynn Mogensen has reported, knowledge of racial disparities doesn’t necessarily get white people to care.)
The virus began in an era of ignorance. It spread amid the political inadequacy of the administration of President Donald Trump, who lied about Covid continually. Mass death became normalized amid the political complacency of the Biden administration.
The death toll has far outpaced scientists’ worst fear. When the pandemic began, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that estimates could change, but that getting up to 1 million or 2 million deaths would be “almost certainly off the chart.” It was “not impossible, but very, very unlikely,” he said.
It has happened.
I remember the signs of death that became ubiquitous in New York, the center of America's initial outbreak, in early 2020: constant sirens, fresh cemetery plots, refrigerated body trucks. In May of that year, people started wedging flowers in the security grate outside a pediatrician's office near my apartment. Candles gathered on the steps, and children's drawings plastered the walls. The doctor, a Polish immigrant who cared for the neighborhood kids, had died of Covid. His office still sits empty.
How can you conceive of a million such stories? It's more than the Americans who died in both world wars. It's Mary Jacq McCulloch, a former teacher living in a North Carolina nursing home who, as an Associated Press report explains, had worked multiple jobs to keep her family afloat and who died in late April 2020, her children "gathered at her bedside and by phone." It's John Prine, who at 73 was not very old; Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, who at 75 wasn't either. It's Leiah Danielle Jones, a North Carolina woman who wrote her own obituary before dying of complications of Covid in March 2021; she was 33. It's more than the stars in the night sky visible to the naked eye.
So, imagine a person who has died of Covid as one leaf on an oak tree, or a single citizen of Austin or San Jose, and then you might come close to recognizing the scale of this pandemic. What was once incalculable is now mundane. What was once "unlikely" is now foregone.