At some point in the coming weeks, the total number of American deaths from Covid-19 will reach 1 min. For reference, the American Civil War took twice as long to kill three quarters of people, and that figure is a upward revision on older estimates. All of the country’s external wars have cost about 700,000 American servicemen out of nearly 250 years.
One million: Even assuming that America has a larger population today than in, say, 1945, the scale and speed of the loss is alarming. And so does its impact on domestic politics. Because there aren’t many.
At the turn of 2020, the two major parties were led by Joe Biden, who had led the Democratic primaries for more than a year, and then-Republican President Donald Trump. The same men are favorites in the betting markets to contest the 2024 election. The pandemic has not permanently toppled established figures (like Vietnam did Lyndon Johnson) or elevated new ones (like World War II). world did it Dwight Eisenhower). The leaders of each party on Capitol Hill are the same, although two of them are past eighty.
The strange stability of politics goes beyond the names and faces of the things they do. The sweeping tax relief in the first month of the lockdown was agreed on promising bipartisan terms. Washington is now as divided and resentful as before. The content of this bill seemed to augur a period of social-democratic government. Now, as his Build Back Better package languishes in Congress, last spring’s Biden-as-Franklin-Roosevelt theme is mortifying to recall.
Even the electoral rhythm of the day is familiar. If Biden loses Congress in his first midterm elections in November, he will only emulate Barack Obama in 2010 and Bill Clinton in 1994. Economic concerns, dispute over abortion: there is very little on the manner and substance of American politics that a visitor from a generation ago would not recognize.
The million lost will leave a mark, but it will be in the world of private bereavement, where 210,000 children lost a primary caregiver. In the civic realm, there has been no electoral realignment, no intellectual break like that which followed the OPEC oil crisis in the early 1970s, no passing of the torch to a new political generation. An independent inquiry into the handling and origins of the pandemic is underway, but it will struggle to gain attention in a country where 3% of voters name Covid as the main problem.
And so we are left with – what? — a higher profile for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the closest thing the pandemic has to direct political legacy. (Inflation has too many relatives to pin on Covid alone.) And even that owes to its libertarian line on mandates and vaccine lockdowns, not the loss of life itself or any prevention thereof. . In fact, it’s hard to think of an event of comparable gravity in US history that has left politics so untouched.
This confusing continuity would be easier to understand if, from the start of the pandemic, the public had tolerated heavy losses. But the opposite was true. Polls showed that voters wanted the state to err on the side of caution: the preservation of life rather than normal life. They feared the first set of restrictions would be eased too fast. It’s hard to know what would have seemed more fantastic to them two springs ago: the eventual death toll or the lack of political disruption he sparked.
Two explanations stand out. The darkest, hardly unique to America, is ageism. The death of so many old people was never going to upset politics in the way the loss of teenage conscripts on distant soil tends to do.
The second is more encouraging. In an age of bottomless cynicism, people think the system has done about as well as it could have, given its inexperience with pandemics and the vagaries of free societies. This is not an emotional view. How quickly Washington delivered checks and science delivered wonders (Paxlovid, Pfizer’s treatment pill, is coming to a pharmacy near you) remains dazzling.
The problem is that to do better next time, a system needs more than all the technical knowledge and practice it has acquired this time around. He needs a political incentive to change. The slaughter of careers and the shaking of institutions that follow a national crisis is not (or not only) vindictive. This is often what drives improvement in the future. It’s hard not to admire a policy that can suffer the loss of a million lives while remaining so familiar in its names, habits and concerns. It’s even harder not to worry.
Letter in response to this article:
Why didn’t the opioid plague shake up American politics? / By John Stewart, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada