Lied to by the president of the United States and egged on by craven commentators, many Americans staunchly refused to give up social gatherings, no matter that staying home was the best way to keep the virus from spreading. They refused to wear masks, and they mocked and harassed people who did. Some are, even now, rejecting a vaccine that could keep the virus from mutating into so many variants that there will be no hope of containing it. And they have done it all, they insist, because they are patriots.
Covid deaths are counted in such inconsistent ways that we may never know their true number, but by one estimate as many as 900,000 Americans have already died of the virus. If you exclude the Civil War, in which Americans fought on both sides, that’s more Americans lost to Covid than in all the other wars we have fought. Combined.
In short, the coronavirus pandemic became a perfect illustration of James’s “moral equivalent of war.” We weren’t fighting a human enemy, but we were fighting for our lives even so. This national calamity, this invasion by a destructive and unstoppable force, was our chance to come together across every possible division. We could finally remember how to sacrifice on behalf of our fellow Americans, how to mourn together the unfathomable losses — not just of life but of security, camaraderie, the capacity for hope.
Plenty of Americans — essential workers, first-responders, hospital staff, teachers and many others — lost their lives because they made such sacrifices. Millions more complied unhesitatingly with measures designed to keep the most vulnerable among us safe. But too, too many of us did not. Too many were hostile to the very idea that they should alter their behavior even in the smallest way for the sake of strangers.
But for those “patriots,” we might be able now to imagine the proclamation of another kind of Memorial Day, one that commemorates not self-sacrifice in war but the lives we saved by joining together to serve the same cause. If Vietnam exploded the unquestioned commitment to national service, the coronavirus pandemic should have been the very thing to bring it back.
That it did exactly the opposite tells us something about who we are as human beings, and who we are as a nation. There is more to mourn today than I ever understood before.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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