A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
More than 500,000 Americans dead from Covid. More than 500,000 lives cut short by a pandemic the rest of us will never forget. Journalists are stretching for words and illustrations and imagery to meet the magnitude of the moment.
As NPR’s Pien Huang wrote Monday, “Losing half a million lives to this disease was unimaginable when the first few people died of COVID-19 in the U.S last February.”
Huang quoted Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a past president of the American Public Health Association, who said “the massive number and the loss of those people from our society has not been acknowledged. We cannot think these people are disposable and dispensable and that we can just get along very well without them. It’s those kinds of blinders that sap the strength of the whole society.”
President Biden and his administration did their best to acknowledge the loss with a tribute and a candlelit moment of silence at the White House at nightfall on Monday. The broadcast networks carried it live along with the major cable news networks. Several of the broadcasts showed faces of the victims and personalized the unfathomable loss.
“Please don’t look away from this or grow numb to the pandemic,” CNN’s Lisa Respers France, a daily contributor to this newsletter, tweeted on Monday. Lisa’s father died last week. She wrote, “My dad & my uncle are included in this number and it’s a pain I wish on no one. Death always hurts, but it’s excruciating when you know it didn’t have to be.”
You are not alone.
CNN’s Brianna Keilar “broke down on air” while “sharing tragic clips of those who have lost family members to Covid-19 — urging viewers to remember the lives lost even if they are ‘tapped out’ and ‘tired’ of the pandemic,” Mediaite’s Leia Idliby wrote.
“I know it is hard. I hear it from so many of you,” Keilar said. “I know you’re tired. I know you’re tapped out. It has been more than a year since the first reported coronavirus case. The quarantining, the hoping that this would subside only to realize that it wouldn’t any time soon, the struggling to make ends meet, the worrying that if this is the day you might spike a fever or start to cough, the juggling your job while you’re homeschooling your kids, being afraid to see your grandparents, being afraid to see your grandkids, knowing that there is a vaccine that you and your loved ones can’t yet get, struggling with mental health. And for almost 500,000 Americans this past year, losing their lives. This is a collective loss. We’re taking this moment to acknowledge that. You are not alone. And if you are lucky enough to still have a little fuel in your tank today, it is a good day to remind someone in your life that you are there for them.”
Faith, reflection, healing
CNN aired “We Remember 500,000: A National Memorial Service for Covid-19” on Monday. I asked host Jake Tapper how the special hour-long program came about. “Last spring, given the refusal of the administration to acknowledge the momentous loss our nation was suffering, a good friend of mine suggested CNN fill that chasm,” Tapper replied. “That was for 100,000 dead from Covid in the US.” (The special aired on Sunday, May 31.)
“Tragically, we’re at another gruesome and heartbreaking milestone, 500,000. So it made even more sense to take a moment to try to honor the loss, and maybe find community and maybe even larger meaning in faith and reflection,” Tapper said. “I am grateful as always to work at a news network and for a boss that allow such moments.”
We will never know the total death toll
At Monday’s Covid response team briefing, a reporter brought up the fact that “some officials and health experts have said that we are almost certainly undercounting COVID-19 deaths in this country.” CDC director Rochelle Walensky affirmed that: “I think that when history writes this, we will understand that the mortality related to this pandemic is far greater than the numbers that we have been counting, for numerous reasons.”