WASHINGTON — COVID-19 deaths in the United States surpassed 500,000 on Monday, the latest desolate way station in a once-uncharted landscape of loss.
The toll is hard to fathom. It’s as if all the people in an American city the size of Atlanta or Sacramento simply vanished. The number is greater than the combined U.S. battlefield deaths in both world wars and Vietnam. Last month, based on average 24-hour fatality counts, it was as if the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had happened every single day.
Recorded U.S. deaths from COVID-19 are about one-fifth of the world’s nearly 2.5 million known fatalities, twice as many as in Brazil, the next-hardest-hit country. California alone accounts for almost 50,000 deaths, about 10% of the country’s total.
Poets and philosophers — and social-science researchers — know that hearing of death on such a mass scale often produces a sense of numbness, that such enormous numbers can become abstractions. For America as a whole, that may be so; for those touched by individual grief, it’s just the opposite.
People who have lost loved ones, or have suffered lasting physical harm from an episode of COVID-19, sometimes speak of feeling stranded on the far side of a great chasm, profoundly alienated from compatriots who wonder when they will be able to go back to bars and baseball games.
President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the threshold of half a million deaths is like nothing “we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic.” U.S. deaths then were a cataclysmic 675,000, though dwarfed by a worldwide toll of some 50 million.
Decades from now, Fauci said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” people are “going to be talking about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country, to have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection.”
To commemorate the sorrowful half-million benchmark, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are expected to observe a moment of silence and hold a candle-lighting ceremony at sunset Monday.
The first known U.S. deaths from the coronavirus came in February 2020, although infectious disease specialists believe the virus was circulating in the country before then. In the subsequent year, the outbreak has left few American lives unscathed.
All the ways in which society organizes itself — school and work, economy and governance, friendship and family life, love and romance — have changed, in some instances irrevocably. The contagion has altered end-of-life farewells and rituals of mourning, with wrenching deathbed scenes played out on FaceTime and memorials staged on Zoom. Other rites of passage stutter and sputter — weddings deferred, graduations unheralded.