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How many deaths will it take to rekindle our humanity?

How many deaths will it take to rekindle our humanity?
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In the U.S., approximately 40,000 people are killed by guns annually, about the same as deaths due to breast cancer. While the number of breast cancer deaths is disturbing, we take comfort in knowing that research and improvements in treatment are making these numbers drop yearly.

By contrast, the number of gun deaths continues to rise; this past year the stress of the pandemic dramatically increased gun purchases and gun violence. Though many call for change, it has not happened because many Americans appear to simply accept this number of gun deaths as the price of a free society. 

This ability to accept gun deaths is mild compared to the acceptance by many Americans of the extraordinary number of pandemic deaths; 550,000 in the U.S. died in one year. Leaders in the last administration suggested we “live with it” to divert attention from the COVID-19 deaths. Federal and state officials altered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports and data collection with the intent of diminishing the pandemic’s political impact, and they encouraged public complacency by denying and dismissing mitigation procedures that could have greatly decreased morbidity and mortality. The proof that masking and distancing work to mitigate spread rests in the utter absence of a flu season; flu being more easily prevented because it does not spread asymptomatically to the extent of SARS-CoV-2. 

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The enormity of this tragedy could have been prevented if there had been proactive national mitigation measures that were rapidly implemented. But this never materialized; mitigation of the pandemic was, in large part, left to the people. Many took on these challenges as good citizens to protect themselves and others, but too many followed the denialist and misleading leaders, resulting in waves of cases and deaths — 32 million cases and 574,000 deaths in the U.S thus far. After weeks of decrease, case numbers recently plateaued at a high level. More COVID-19 deaths are inevitable.  

What level of death would have convinced conservative leaders and their followers that a crisis was, and still is, at hand? Perhaps COVID-19 is not deadly enough. The infamous 1918 flu pandemic readily killed healthy people in the 15 to 40-year-old age group. Would the deniers be swayed if COVID-19 was more contagious and deadly in younger age groups? Unfortunately, many Americans have been convinced that COVID-19 is a significant problem only for the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Perhaps this has made the deaths acceptable, since the elderly are perceived by many as dispensable, as a drain on the economy.  

Some conservatives justify voter suppression by suggesting that the nation would be better served by having fewer — but “better” — voters. This Anglo-Saxon mindset provides easy justification for the suppression of COVID-19 mitigation; the nation would be better served with fewer elderly and fewer people of color, groups that are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. This concept may have motivated the senators and representatives who promoted letting the virus run rampant through the population to attain natural herd immunity. This plan, lacking basis in virology or epidemiology, would have greatly increased COVID-19 deaths, as demonstrated in Sweden. There would have been staggering morbidity and mortality, allowing the generation of even more viral variants than have emerged — variants that could prolong the pandemic by thwarting vaccine-induced immunity, increasing contagion and accounting for more severe disease and more deaths.  

We are at a historic crossroads — the world has been brought to its knees by a microscopic pathogen. Yet Americans cannot come to a consensus on our vulnerability to this pathogen and the means to mitigate it. The same is true for gun violence. The cultural and political divide is so intense that we can no longer put forth a united effort against national crises. How many deaths will it take?

We will, without a doubt, be tested again. There will be more gun violence and mass shootings. There will be more pandemics. Viruses with epidemic and pandemic potential have arisen at least 10 times in the past 100 years. More are coming, possibly with increasing frequency due to climate change and encroachment on animal habitats. A deep reservoir of worrisome viruses, that could jump to humans, exists in many different animals. The next pandemic disease could make COVID-19 look like child’s play.  

During this pandemic, scientists across the world came together with a cooperative spirit which, in one year, engendered extraordinary achievements, including multiple potent vaccines. This spirit must be built upon with the formation of cooperating national and international organizations dedicated to future pandemic detection and response. But equally essential is an awakening of the human spirit where we come together around common humanitarian goals. The worldwide scientific collaboration on COVID-19 validates that this can be done. Indeed, the ability of Americans to come together against a common foe is the bedrock of our patriotism. But we have become our own greatest enemy in confronting the threats posed by pathogens and guns to ourselves, our children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. How many deaths will it take for Americans, and religious and civic leaders, to rekindle our collective humanity?   

James Alwine is a virologist, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a virologist, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and a Public Voice fellow.