American life as we knew it was turned on its head — only temporarily, some insisted; irrevocably, others grimly predicted. In an alarming and surreal procession, public spaces were shuttered, offices emptied out, travel came to a halt, and millions of people retreated to their homes. The new landscape across the country and the world was grim. Hard-working people would lose their houses, their businesses, their jobs, their savings, their dreams.
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But perhaps more disturbing were “the numbers” — the infection rates, the hospitalization rates, the fatality rates. The sometimes cold, clinical vocabulary of epidemiology and crisis response could barely disguise the unbearable reality: Americans were dying — first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands — as hospitals turned into veritable war zones.
The scale of the loss can be difficult to absorb, partly because we are still learning about the exact nature of COVID-19, partly because local tallies are not uniformly reliable and partly because we are all consumed with our own domestic crises, from school closings and family separations to financial struggles and mental health challenges.
But mostly because sheer human tragedy of this magnitude is so rare in modern American history. As the U.S. reached the painful milestone of 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday, that figure represents, approximately, the death toll from the 9/11 terror attacks multiplied by 33.
Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers in our own towns and cities and states — 100,000 people gone, leaving unfathomable grief and confusion and anger in their wake.
In late April, NBC News published a project called “60 Lives, 60 Days.” It’s a page containing the names, ages and photos of 60 people who lost their lives to COVID-19, alongside short obituaries and vignettes about their lives. The effect is devastating, all the more so because these individuals represent only a tiny fraction of the national death toll.
The suffering of the last few months has been accompanied by astonishing feats of bravery and endurance from Americans on the front lines — doctors, nurses, medical researchers, essential employees in nearly every city, truck drivers, food delivery folks, sanitation workers. Not to mention heartening acts of decency from people far from the front lines.
So many Americans have met the moment: donating to charities, stitching masks and other personal protective equipment, supporting local restaurants and artists, commemorating birthdays with drive-by parades. (My 19-month-old son, for his part, recently hollered out the window of our New York City apartment during the nightly 7 p.m. cheer for front-line workers.)