I was a junior in college when 9/11 happened. I had lab that day for my cell biology class. I remember because none of us did the lab that day. Many of us had our laptops open and the TA was trying to get us to follow the exercise for the day. But as I looked around the room, every laptop was on a news page, not the lab manual. Eventually the TA gave up. Years later, that same TA interviewed for a faculty position in the department where I was working toward my doctorate. I went up after his presentation and re-introduced myself. He remembered me and I definitely remembered him. Because you remember the people you’re with on such a pivotal day. For my husband, his entire military career (and by extension, my career too) has been defined by 9/11 just as for so many who currently serve. I remember the fear and anxiety that another attack was imminent. Years later, the tears were ready and surprisingly uncontrollable when the mastermind behind the attack was killed. I didn’t personally know anyone who died in the 9/11 attacks. But I remember the collective grief that our communities across the country felt. I remember that every house put up an American flag in the days and weeks that followed.
Just like then, we live through historic times now. Today people are tweeting and posting about where they were on 9/11. The tweet below comes from the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was the director for most of the time that I worked there. And here is how he noted his remembrance today.
In response, I couldn’t help but think on how differently we have responded to these two historic events. In response to 2,974 deaths and more that would come from exposure to the crash site in the years to come, we have been engaged in a war that has lasted 19 years, costing the lives of over 3500 US and NATO service members and injuring tens of thousands. We have spent an estimated $2 trillion dollars in this war alone.
Is the reason we haven’t launched a similar defense against coronavirus because the nearly 200,000 US deaths so far were spread out over six months, rather than one day? Is it just too big a number for the average American to imagine? Is it because the enemy in this case is something we can’t touch or see?
My family is really into the musical, Hamilton. And a couple days ago we rewatched the episode of Some Good News where John Krasinski surprised a little girl who was devastated to miss a Broadway performance of Hamilton due to the pandemic. We had tickets to the Atlanta performance too. Anyway, the original cast Zoom-bombs the little girl and sings the opening song. But in the lead up to that part of the show, I had forgotten all of the amazing reasons why the Some Good News show was the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” of 2020. As the show ended I was nostalgic for who we used to be last spring. It wasn’t that long ago that commercials honoring healthcare workers and parking lots were filled with cars flashing their lights would bring me to tears again. Italians were singing and playing instruments from their balconies in solidarity. Similarly, New Yorkers were banging pots and pans to honor healthcare workers. People dusted off sewing machines they hadn’t touched in years and recognized a need in their community. Distilleries converted their production from making liquor and spirits into hand sanitizer. Auto manufacturers converted their production from making car parts to ventilator equipment. We first watched the Some Good News episode in April when it aired. But I had somehow already forgotten the incredible ways that everyday people were demonstrating service before self.
The repeated messaging that people will do the right thing is unfortunately not playing out as one would have hoped. I don’t know what happened since April except that we all got tired. We just don't have the community-oriented mindset that allowed our country to overcome previous challenges. Would we survive the rations and victory gardens of World War II? Where service before self used to be a virtue that we all aspired to and tried to teach our kids, it is now something that makes news headlines because of how out of the ordinary it has become. So people aren't wearing masks as they should, they aren't participating in contact tracing investigations, and they aren't following public health guidance because large portions of our society no longer equate doing the right thing with caring about other people and one's community.
We launched a war that has lasted 19 years, cost >3500 US and NATO lives and trillions of dollars (US investment alone) in response to the visceral pain of losing 2,974 precious lives. In a pandemic that kills that many people in a few days, repeatedly for months, we shrug and carry on about our days. What has happened to us? Why doesn’t this compel us to take heroic action? Are front line workers who were revered in April suddenly unimportant? Are the risks they’re taking no longer heroic? Are the grocery store workers no longer risking their lives to ensure you have food and toilet paper? Why are the teachers who we praised as miracle workers for transitioning to online learning in the spring derided now as freeloaders because they don’t want to risk their lives to teach in person? Why are the elderly and those with underlying conditions dismissed by some as expendable deaths? Every one of them was preventable. We remove our shoes before boarding an aircraft because one time there was bomb in a shoe. Yet people scoff at wearing a mask to mitigate a threat that kills people every single day.
Below is the graph of excess deaths for the United States as of today. The bars show the weekly total of deaths for all causes. Note that death reporting can be delayed by as much as 8 weeks. The orange line is the threshold for what is considered above normal, or “excess.” We have been above normal for five months steady. This is a horrifying amount of death. We should not be okay with it.
In the first talk I gave on the pandemic in March, I closed by reminding my students and colleagues that times of extraordinary challenge inspire moments of incredible courage and compassion. I’m not sure what happened to us between last spring and now. I’m not a sociologist. But we need more courage and more compassion. We need more people who take heroic action every day by wearing their mask and sheltering the vulnerable around them. We need to honor the selflessness of ordinary people who ram an airline beverage cart through terrorists and into a cockpit to save lives through our own actions. Ordinary people can be heroes. You can be a hero. We need to recognize that the needs of our community might be greater than our own at this time. Our enemy in this case is abstract. We can’t see or touch it. We can’t go to war with it or bomb it out of existence. Our dead are not a building full of people or an airplane full of people but nearly 200,000 people. And if the unspeakable loss we experienced 19 years ago compelled us into solidarity and action, then we need to find it within ourselves to do so again.
In solidarity and remembrance, let our lives honor those we have lost.
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My Ph.D. is in Medical Microbiology and Immunology. I've worked at places like Creighton University, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Mercer University School of Medicine. All thoughts are my professional opinion and should not be considered medical advice.