This is not the pandemic’s darkest hour; that may have already passed. New U.S. cases have been falling for five weeks; the vaccine rollout, despite lags and shortages, is trending toward success — although it is also a race against deadly new variants that are circulating in the U.S. and around the world.
Over the past year, the pandemic laid bare shocking U.S. social disparities that were present all along but thrown into stark relief by the crisis. Black people and Latinos are much more likely to suffer devastating medical outcomes. Economic inequities abound, with wealthier work-at-home Americans weathering the outbreak with comparative ease, even while unemployment has soared to levels not seen in decades, leaving millions of American families unable to pay for necessities such as housing and food.
Particularly during last year’s election cycle, the coronavirus proved a ferocious political wedge issue, making a battleground of basic public-health measures and notions about self-interest versus the common good. Egged on by former President Donald Trump, many Republican elected officials and their supporters refused to don masks or maintain social distancing standards despite ample warnings by public health authorities, thus placing more vulnerable populations in greater danger.
At the same time, there was a bleak commonality to the threat: COVID-19 has ravaged crowded urban neighborhoods as well as lonely prairie towns, leapfrogging inexorably from coast to coast. The pandemic has brought scenes most Americans never thought they would witness on home soil, with overwhelmed hospital wards and overflowing mobile morgues.
For health care workers, the disease has been a merciless, monthslong onslaught, threatening their physical and mental health as they have struggled to care for others. Front-line jobs such as delivering mail and bagging groceries continue to be fraught with particular danger, even though such essential workers are prioritized for receiving the vaccines.
As the disease embarked on its relentless march, the elderly were hit the hardest, with those over 65 accounting for about four in five U.S. deaths and many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities ravaged. But contagion clawed its way into all age categories, sweeping away some of the young and healthy, afflicting children with a still poorly understood inflammatory syndrome. Medical experts say the pandemic has indirectly claimed many thousands of lives, with ailments undiagnosed and treatments deferred.
Despite vigorous efforts by Trump to play down the expected toll, the pandemic was always a chronicle of death foretold. A full year ago, in a February 2020 webinar by the American Hospital Association, Dr. James Lawler, an epidemiologist who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, predicted an estimated 480,000 deaths, a number branded by some at the time as alarmist.
Projections by infectious disease specialists were always by definition imperfect, because they were dependent on public behavior and policy choices. But over the months, the pandemic’s terrifying progression spoke for itself.
From the beginning of the outbreak, it took four months for the benchmark of 100,000 deaths to be reached, in May 2020. But by Jan. 19, when the toll reached 400,000, it took only another five weeks for that number to grow to 500,000.
A world-altering mass contagion in modern times has long been a staple of Hollywood entertainment, but for many, the specter of a pathogen that would touch nearly everyone alive seemed somehow fanciful — relegated to a sepia-toned distant past, before medical advances such as mechanical ventilation and sophisticated vaccines.