The likely death toll numbers confirmed this week by medical authorities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are staggering.
Experts like Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci have said this week that "if we do things almost perfectly" from here on out, meaning maintaining strict social distancing for at least the next month and likely more, we will still likely see 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in this country. For context, 200,000 is about the number of U.S. soldiers who died in World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Being a contemporary of those who died in Vietnam, which included some of my high school and college classmates, I painfully remember those more than 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers and the human faces behind them. It’s still difficult for me to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and see all the names. This death toll could be so much larger and come at a faster pace. As I said, I feel staggered by that.
If we do nothing to mitigate this modern plague — or had we reopened everything by Easter as President Trump talked about as recently as last week — it could result in 1.5 to 2.2 million deaths. That's a higher number than every U.S. soldier who has ever died in all U.S. wars put together throughout our nation's history. A University of Washington model estimates that we are still likely to see more than 1,000 people die in the U.S. every single day for the next 40 days.
Many of us already know someone who is sick, hospitalized, or who has died from COVID-19 — including in the extended families and close friends of Sojourners' staff and board members. Unfortunately, by the time this is over nearly everyone will know someone who died. The refrigerated trucks lined up outside New York City hospitals being used as temporary morgues will likely become a feature in most big cities in April and May, as will hastily erected field hospitals in parks, hotels, and convention centers like we see in Central Park already.
Despite Trump’s own road to Damascus conversion, as some have described it, and his newly somber tone, he is still just about the furthest thing from the kind of leader we need in this moment. After citing doctors and scientists who stand by him for daily White House briefings, Trump quickly diverts to his usual character of praising himself and attacking his opponents and the press, even some in the briefing room.
His decision to back away from quickly reopening the country was reportedly informed by political advisers, who told him that a death toll in the millions would be worse for his reelection than the economic pain of continued social distancing restrictions. He lies about the need for more testing and about the widespread shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators. One governor told Trump on a call that they don’t have enough tests; his immediate response was, “I haven’t heard that.” And in almost every White House briefing, Trump refuses to admit any mistakes or even acknowledge the ways he ignored the severity of the brewing pandemic and the need for early action for precious months, back when action could have saved so many more lives.
That's an important thing we need to remember, especially once we do get to the other side of the immediate crisis: This wasn't inevitable. The lives likely to be lost over the next few months are people created in the image of God who could have been saved with earlier and more decisive action. South Korea has shown the rest of the world how this could have been done, and how future pandemics must be fought. Trump is currently engaged in an Orwellian exercise of managing expectations, in which "only" 100,000-240,000 is the current "goal" and would represent a big “success.” We must remember that it didn't get this bad in every nation because other nations were more prepared and acted sooner. The lives already lost and those we will lose this year did not need to be lost.
We all should humbly acknowledge that this caught the whole world by surprise. But, despite the characteristic response of political leaders to deny or even cover up the truth to protect themselves, it is indeed time to demand truthfulness from all our political leaders now — to literally save our lives. And, despite political opposition to Donald Trump, as Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says, as quoted today in a column by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, “Nobody wants him to fail, I don’t want him to fail”
Political judgements and decisions will be evaluated and decided at the ballot box in November. In the meantime, we must all indeed pull together to do everything each of us can to practice responsible social distancing. One of the points Birx has rightly emphasized is that the trajectory of this pandemic in the United States and how many lives it claims comes down to “behavior change” — how well we adhere to the necessary social distancing for as long as it takes to turn the tide of the pandemic. The church can play an important role in modeling what behavior change looks like in this context: Faith communities and humanitarian organizations must be at the forefront to protect people, and especially the most vulnerable people, and to help all of us not feel alone in this crisis.
Two scriptures have come to mind for me in the last week.
The first is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, which begins, “Pray without ceasing.” It’s a line many of us have heard and cited but perhaps never really understood; you really can’t pray all the time! But prayer has become a constant demand for more and more of us as those loved ones closest to us are contracting this potentially lethal disease. I have a notepad beside my computer on my desk with the names of those on my personal prayer vigil list. It grows every day. My own sister, and her husband, and two of their four children now have COVID-19; the continual family texts with news, advice, comments, and mostly prayers pings from my phone throughout the day.
The original Greek meaning of the phrase, “pray without ceasing” does not mean pray “constantly,” which is indeed impossible. It means “continually recurring,” and that has become our experience. One commentator said, “this does not mean, for example, that one prays uninterruptedly but that one prays regularly and frequently.” This pandemic will indeed teach us how to pray in recurring ways — in both words and silence — that will link us ever more closely with loved ones.
The other text is Ephesians 5:16, which says bluntly, “Redeem the time, for the days are evil.”
Realizing that the people who are dying are dying alone makes for very evil days. But I also think the days that preceded the unexpected onslaught of a killer virus were also evil. They had become days of untruthfulness, the acceleration of racial bigotry, the promotion of fear, hate, and violence, and the political targeting of those Jesus tells us to protect — those on the margins.
So I have been asking myself: How do we respond to these evil days of unrest — staying at home, many working digitally, many others who still must go to work, caring for and homeschooling children, changing our schedules, family life, and even how we worship — all in ways that “redeem” this time, perhaps in ways that change us all going forward? This will indeed be a “staggering” time in all our personal lives and, in part because of that, a deeply reflective time. The choices and decisions we make now will ultimately help shape and determine who and what we will be as people, families, communities, churches, and a nation when the immediate health crisis subsides. This moment will change us; we will not be the same afterward — how it changes us will depend on how we “redeem the time.”
Using these days to make the best use of our time — for doing good — will become more and more necessary as we see people die in such unprecedented numbers.
Many are saying that the coronavirus doesn’t “discriminate” and will be contracted by people who are politically red and blue, rich and poor, and of every race and ethnicity. Yes, that is medically true, but where people live and whether they have access to safe homes, steady incomes, plenty of food and supplies, medical advice and care, and the ability to do social distancing, will all contribute to the contagiousness and lethality of the disease. We already know that these factors are profoundly affected by structural racism in the United States, and the growth of COVID-19 “hot spots” in heavily black cities like Detroit and New Orleans is further evidence of the way these factors are so deeply and tragically interconnected.
I end this column posing the questions: What would it mean to make COVID-19 a Matthew 25 moment? What if the condition of those Jesus calls “the least of these” was at the forefront of our minds and decisions — and where would we, as a nation and as a society, emerge on the other side? As we love and care for our own families, let us recall the words of Jesus in that Gospel text when he says that the least of these are “part of my family.”