Too many Americans are still in Covid denial even after 1 million deaths

When Johns Hopkins University announced that the United States had surpassed 1 million deaths from covid-19, I was recovering from my first (and hopefully last) bout of the disease. I had prepared as much as I could — shout-out to Pfizer — so the infection passed like a nasty flu. Earlier in the crisis, an immunocompromised man in his late 50s, as I am, might have ended up in the hospital, on a ventilator, a coin flip away from eternity.

In a way, I now feel more connected with people whose lives have been touched by covid. But of course, many lives have not been just touched but crushed by the disease. The cost of 1 million friends and relatives lost during the past 27 months resists summary and comparison. There is no adequate scale on which to measure this mass of grief.

Yet trying is better than living in denial — pretending that the hurricane never passed or the earthquake never happened. At its worst, covid-19 became the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. The country saw its largest drop in life expectancy since World War II. More than 200,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver.

People try to grapple with this experience in different ways. My interpretive construct is global health in other countries. The United States is quite good at saving people from infectious diseases in other places. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has saved more than 20 million lives since 2003. The President’s Malaria Initiative has reduced malaria death rates by about 50 percent in the countries where it operates. In the process, it has saved the lives of roughly 2 million children.

When I have visited these programs abroad, I have seen how health technology plays an important role — things such as antiretroviral drugs and long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed nets. But the progress made depends on the human factor of adherence: taking the pills every day, even when you don’t feel sick, and putting up the bed net every night without fail. Adherence to AIDS medicines was spotty at first because Africans sometimes distrusted Western medicine and turned to traditional healers. But over time, people saw the immediate, nearly miraculous healing power of the AIDS drugs in their friends and neighbors. Soon stigma was reduced, and AIDS patients in most places were achieving Western levels of adherence.


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