From the onset of the pandemic until the end of my term as pastor on December 31, 2020, I wrote a daily email to my parishioners which frequently included updated statistics on the number of covid cases and deaths worldwide, in the U.S., and in Tennessee. Since then I haven't paid that much attention to those steadily rising statistics, but I could hardly not notice this past week when the U.S. pandemic death toll finally passed one million. "One million empty chairs around the family dinner table," President Biden said in a video message marking this tragic milestone. "Each irreplaceable, irreplaceable losses. Each leaving behind a family or community forever changed because of this pandemic." The President has even ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff this weekend in recognition of our collective national loss.
And loss it is. Not just the one million tragically dead, but the millions who survive them, who have tragically lost parents, spouses, siblings, caregivers, friends, colleagues. And then the are all those who were sickened with the virus, some extremely severely at the time, and many still afflicted with the mysterious mix of symptoms we casually call 'long covid." so, yes, indeed, there is plenty to mourn this weekend.
Back in March 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator projected as many as 200,000 covid deaths "if we do things almost perfectly." That seemed shockingly high at that time.
One obvious response to such a shocking prediction might have been to "do things almost perfectly." Presumably that would have meant a major investment in mass testing and mitigation measures (.e.g., masking). Well, we know how that went!
The one thing we did do "almost perfectly" was the amazingly rapid, unprecedentedly rapid, development of effective vaccines. But then the same politicization of the pandemic that caused a casual attitude toward masking and social distancing, especially among certain populations and in certain parts of the country, took over and diminished the social benefit of such an amazing and unprecedentedly rapid scientific breakthrough. Thanks to irresponsible politicians, pundits, religious leaders, and others, vaccination rates did not rise as high as they should have, while a narcissistic "done with covid" mentality took over everywhere, even among many of the vaccinated - shedding masks prematurely as if the pandemic were gone for good.
The pandemic is not gone for good, although thankfully vaccines and new therapeutic drugs have radically diminished the likelihood of severe disease in most cases. Still, the virus's continuance in circulation increases the potential for new variants, some of which might prove less constrained by existing vaccines and therapeutic measures.
It seems as if we never learn from experience.
Meanwhile, we haltingly mourn those we have lost and hope another new virus isn't lurking somewhere ready to exploit our unpreparedness to "do things almost perfectly."