The US Badly Needs A Wake-Up Call On The COVID19 Pandemic

| Educate!

Above photo: Lanee Jackson of Black Lives Matter DC participates in an “Essential, Not Expendable” demonstration in Washington, DC, on April 27. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Years of potential life lost” is the most sobering and sad Covid-19 statistic I’ve seen.

More than 120,000 people in the United States have died of Covid-19.

It’s an enormous number and, quite frankly, a failure of our national response, and of our leadership. But that number does not seem to be enough to inspire all Americans to wear masks, to inspire self-sacrifice to save lives, to inspire more politicians in states to action.

Instead, they are doing the opposite: signaling that things are getting better rather than worse. President Trump is holding massive indoor rallies. Rather than suppressing the pandemic, states and cities are easing up on social distancing, shying away from new restrictions even as cases in some states climb.

And so we are at a dangerous time in the pandemic. Cases are rising in many states, along with hospitalizations. Deaths have not started rising nationally yet, but researchers fear they’re coming: It can take, on average, 17.8 days from the start of symptoms to a Covid-19 death. America needs a wake-up call to this endless disaster, and fast.

The death count is almost certainly an undercount. It doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. Recently, Harvard epidemiologists calculated a Covid-19 statistic that lands like a gut punch. The statistic is “years of potential life lost.” And perhaps it can help shake our collective numbness to the pandemic.

Psychology teaches us it’s too easy to grow numb to mass suffering and death. We need to fight against that instinct when we can. A life lost isn’t just a single number; it’s a trauma with a ripple effect, throughout our communities, and throughout time.

Imagining more than 138,000 years of human life lost

Calculating years of potential life lost is somewhat straightforward. The Harvard team looked at death certificate data from people who died of Covid-19 and set a cutoff age, in this case 65.

They then found all the people who died of documented Covid-19 before reaching this age and summed up how many years they had left until age 65. This analysis made 65 the cutoff age to try to give a sense of the burden of younger people dying of Covid-19 (though they aren’t dying in rates as high as older people, their loss is still immense). “There’s an arbitrariness,” to the cutoff, Nancy Krieger, a Harvard epidemiologist who co-authored the analysis, says. “But 65 is not arbitrary from a policy standpoint, in terms of benefits, in terms of Social Security, in terms of Medicare. It’s an age that helps also distinguish between people who are of working age still versus not.”

Black Americans under the age of 65 have lost, collectively, 45,777 years of life, the researchers’ analysis (published in a working paper) found. Hispanics and Latinos lost 48,204.

White Americans under age 65 have lost, collectively, 33,446 years of life. Already you can see a clear disparity. White people in the United States greatly outnumber Black people and Hispanics — there are also more deaths among white people overall — but the burden of years life lost among this young group is in these minority communities. (American Indians and Alaska natives lost 1,745 years of life. Asian and Pacific Islanders lost 8,905.)

Tallied up, that totals more than 138,000 years of human life lost before age 65. That’s enormous — and still, an undercount. Many of these people would have lived to a much older age. Still, this small slice of our national loss is enormous: What is 138,000 years of human life worth?

“You think about people being the dynamic beings that we are, living across space and time,” Krieger says. “And then you have lives that are just pulled out of the picture.”

That’s a huge loss.

“Think of all people do in a year,” Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician and public health expert, tweeted on Twitter, referencing Krieger’s study. “You work, have babies, get married, make memories. Black and Latinx populations have lost those opportunities more than 45,000 times from COVID alone.”

America may be growing numb to the pandemic — but it’s never been more critical to act

There’s a growing sense that America is giving up on the pandemic. Many states have lifted stay-at-home orders without aggressive new mitigation measures in place. And as cases rise in certain states, it’s unclear if governments will take further action to stop the exponential growth.

As a reporter covering the pandemic, I feel a greater sense of pandemic doom now than in February. In February, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were prepared to do something. Now we have a better idea of what will happen, and we’re largely giving up.

It’s partly understandable. People are tired of stay-at-home orders. People need to work (especially if the government is unwilling to provide expanded support). There’s also been an absence of a strong, nationalized message on the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a lot of information for individuals navigating the Covid-19 world, but it gets undermined by the Trump administration, which seems to try to make the issue of mask-wearing into more of a front in the culture wars than a guideline for public health.

But it’s also understandable in terms of human psychology. There’s a concept called psychic numbing, and it may, in part, explain the apathy and exhaustion many are feeling about the coronavirus pandemic. It means that as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

“Anything that happens on a large scale seems to require that we use numbers to describe it, and yet numbers are precisely the mode of discourse that, in most cases, leaves audiences numb and messages devoid of meaning,” Paul Slovic, the University of Oregon psychologist who has studied psychic numbing for years, writes.

“Years of life lost” could help cut through the numbing

For me, the “years of life lost” metric helps cut through the numbing by making these deaths a little less abstract. Think about one year of your life: of the depth and richness of it, of what you can accomplish in it, of how many people you can show your love to during it. Now try to multiply that by 138,000.

This also runs the risk of becoming another large number. But perhaps its novelty, and its accessibility in terms of applying it to our own lives (we can all imagine a year of life), can help. It also underscores how a single death is a trauma that can ripple out.

“When someone dies, their own death matters enormously,” Krieger says. “But it matters enormously for everyone in that person’s family, friends, and networks. When you strip out someone at a much younger age, there’s just a different dimension to what that burden is.”

No death occurs in a vacuum. “It’s also all the ripple effects,” Krieger says. The parents who can no longer provide for their kids. The people who can no longer contribute to their communities. “This gives a different view, and I think it’s a very important one about who is being ripped out of society at younger ages.”

Even among older people, years of life — years of potential — are being lost. In Italy, researchers found that Covid-19 was killing people around 12 to 14 years before they might have died naturally. Even accounting for age and underlying conditions, the study found, people were dying more than five years sooner than life span estimates would suggest.

Of course, death isn’t the only effect Covid-19 has had on our society. There are plenty of other reasons we need greater action to manage the pandemic. One is the great health burden — all the hospitalizations, the days sick, the lingering effects — on those who fall ill but recover. Also the unknowns: Even asymptomatic cases of Covid-19 may leave a mark on the lungs.

Another reason is to save our economy. Another is for our mental health. Nationally, around a third of Americans have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression since late April. For comparison, in the first three months of 2019, just 11 percent of Americans reported these symptoms on a similar survey.

Death “is really important,” Krieger says. “But there’s also when somebody gets sick, or they’re worried about being sick, there’s all the fear that goes with that. There’s the concerns of their loved ones about them. There’s the questions of what the economic implications are for individuals and their households if someone becomes ill.”

There’s also the unfair burden Covid-19 is placing on Black and minority communities — in terms of health and mortality, but economically too. In the paper, Krieger and her co-authors find Covid-19 mortality is nine times higher in Black communities compared to white people in the 35- to 44-year-old range. “You don’t get relative risks for seven- to ninefold for most things in the US for health inequities,” Krieger says. This is extreme.

And a lot more damage can still be done. For the pandemic to simmer down naturally — in a way that will allow life to go back to normal — the population needs to achieve something called herd immunity. For the coronavirus, herd immunity could possibly be achieved when 50 percent of the population is immune. But it could need to be as high as 65 percent.

No area is anywhere near that figure, even New York City, where at least 17,000 people have died of Covid-19. In late April, it was estimated that 20 percent of the city had been exposed to the coronavirus. Elsewhere, the infection rates are much, much lower.

There are so many reasons to not be numb to the coronavirus pandemic. As we see case counts rising, we can’t stay complacent. There’s so much more left to lose.

  • jim james

    you’re printing Vox?

    For real?


  • John R.

    While we hope for relief, a vaccine and herd immunity, the thing we have now is “herd stupidity.” Leading the way is the self-proclaimed genius and his side-kick who do not wear masks or have any real sense of the horrors and dangers of Covid-19 – they lead the way for it getting worse – much worse. And so many people amazingly enough follow their lead like the Texans and Arizonans that are coming to Santa Fe wearing no masks because their leader says they don’t really need to. Unfcuking believable ! I’d been under estimating the level of ignorance in the general population for years – it’s on fool display now with Covid-19.

  • kevinzeese

    We are not Vox fans and do not republish them normally but this was an interesting way at measuring the impact of 120,000+ Covid deaths.

  • kevinzeese

    If you are claiming that Covid is a falsehood, you need some new sources of information.

  • Nylene13

    I would like to see stats on who is actually dying from this virus.

    We already know it is often older people with underlying health issues.

    I am wondering if malnutrition is one of them, and other things that Trump has no reason to fear.

    Meanwhile I would say Eat Healthy!
    Drink OJ and grape juice and eat lots of fruit and veggies, and whole grain breads.
    Don’t eat meat or drunk much alcohol. Eat veggie burgers.
    Snack on dried nuts and raisins. Add some dark chocolate chips.
    Drink herbal teas.

  • rgaura

    SARS Cov19 is a nasty flu. I had it last November. It has a mortality rate of 0.01%, which ranks it a bit worse than the usual flu. The death rate has gone up about 5% this year in the US, which is no small thing in a large population. However, children under 19 have a 0% chance of dying from it, getting it, or transmitting it. My 19 year old had a runny nose for 2 days, and slept more than usual, while I had a dry cough which progressed to pneumonia. So why close all schools? And turn them into bizarre solitary confinement situations? Why send infected patients into nursing homes, where the most vulnerable populations reside? Why shutdown society? You can go to Walmart or Costco, but not church or the local mom and pop store or restaurant where you would contact fewer people?
    Why was the tracing program contracted last August (by Bill Gates and Bobby Rush in Africa)? This series of bizarre and dystopian public policy programs, including fascist legislation was pre programmed, planned way in advance, and has little to do with a flu, no matter how noxious. Why stand protocols for influenza of 100 years standing on their head? Normally, you protect the vulnerable (elderly and immune compromised) and everyone else goes about their business. You don’t have to shut down the global economy and insure that millions will die of starvation and privation, and ensure social unrest.
    Just look at the `RESET´ proposed by the World Economic Forum last week, you’ll see the plan. Just listen to Mr Monopoly eugenicist Gates go on about how we all need toxic jabs and ID cards. This is a rollout of fascism, based on a PR campaign of false tests, contaminated tests, terrible public policy, and poor medical responses. The data is inflated and often just plain false (see Pam Popper, and Children’s Health Defense Fund). Fauci and the Imperial College (both funded by Gates) have a record of inflating numbers, hysterical projections, and prescribing toxic injections as cures. The Swine flu was only one example.
    This flu is deadly when combined with contaminated air. (Who is testing the air in New York boroughs hardest hit?) They will talk all day about carbon, but not the fact that cyanide levels have been over EPA guidelines in many major cities. And many of those patients are presenting with hypoxia, which is a symptom of cyanide poisoning, not usual flu symptoms.
    Do a little investigating, and the mainstream narrative falls apart. The prescribed actions all damage the immune system; hand washing with harsh chemicals destroys the protective biome, masks reduce oxygen to levels that violate OSHA regulations and recycle viruses, isolation has know psychological and physiological damaging effects, even being deprived of touch and hugging shortens the lifespan. We have evolved to exchange tens of thousands of viruses constantly. We move in a cloud about 3 feet round our body. We wrap these non living bits of RNA in our own lipids and pass them on. Its the information of life. We have an amazing capacity to take them in, and adapt to the new information. (See Dr Zach Bush) Preventing contact lowers our immune system, it does not make us stronger. It is wrong to graft the infectious theory of bacteria onto viruses, they are different things; they are not living.
    Look at the new proposals for California school systems; they destroy all of our traditional ways of teaching and relating. Children cannot play, eat together, touch. Its like a prison. Half of instruction will be at home and virtual. For the 75% of CA children who are poor or minority, it will mean permanent underclass assignment. For the lucky, it will be programming for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So, it will create a culture of desensitization and PTSD.
    Who in the world will support Single Payer Health care or public schools then? They will have destroyed the movements in one stroke. When health care means being tracked, traced, perhaps family separations, the loss of informed consent. (Remember the tracing legislation comes from the Clintons, of Lolita Express fame) What will they do with those children? They are already removing and double testing newborns from native women in AZ, and interfering with bonding and breastfeeding. Who wants public education when 72 injections before age 12 are mandated, parents have no say in the matter, and tens of thousands of children are damaged every year?
    There are thousands of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists standing up and saying this is an epidemic of hysteria and fear, fueled by false information. Read some of the ones I have referenced, please!

  • Jon

    But do you trust the vaccine makers to provide (at a great profit and without any liability) something that is BOTH effective (viruses mutate quickly) and safe? Pay attention to some of the well-informed alternative voices!

  • Jon

    Thank you rgaura for some vital information conveyed, including some of these alternative references with which I am familiar. In retard to “Children cannot play, eat together, touch. Its like a prison. Half of instruction will be at home and virtual.” Consider too the impact of ever-increasing exposure to electro-magnetic radiation via electronic gadgets, and if the forces of negativity have their way, 5G will be one more huge biological burden to bear–for all of life.

  • jim james

    Thanks for putting up with me.

  • sabelmouse

    what is the actual evidence of a paNDEMIC, OTHER THAN PEOPLE GET FLU/COLDS ALL OVER THE PLACE, or the dangerousness? everything points in the other direction. and has from the very beginning.
    global corporate fascism is the name of the game [ and it might well be a game to the likes of gates, we’re real life toys! ]

  • sabelmouse

    the off guardian has them all, and more. on here the digger has a good few.

  • sabelmouse

    you always do that thing where you say good things and then veer into your veg propaganda.
    not just wrong, but off putting.

  • rgaura

    The problem with a vegetarian diet is that all grains and legumes are sprayed with glyphosate right before harvest (unless grown organically. Glyphosate causes gut dysbiosis, and myriad health problems. Its in animal products as well, as they are fed RR GMO foods. See Dr Stephanie Seneff at MIT. Even vaccines were found to be contaminated with glyphosate!

  • Nylene13

    I grow organically. The problem is you can’t control what your neighbor does-or the farm down the road.

    Organic should be a Law.

  • Nylene13

    Off putting to you because you don’t want to think about how bad eating meat is for you, and for the Environment.

  • sabelmouse

    eating meat is good for me. although it were eggs what brought me back from malnutrition first.
    if i could magic i’d drop yo into the middle of an irish field for a week. maybe then you’d understand climaTE, AND SOIL.
    off putting because you seem unable to comment without adding those boring bits.

  • Nylene13

    Eat your eggs. Find a place where you can get them from free range well treated hens.

    That is all the animal protein you should need.

  • sabelmouse

    gosh, i never thought of that. i’m a bit of eggs actually. i ate 3 – 5 a day for over . more fish, meat and dairy now.
    ireland is great for locally raised, grassfed beef.

  • Nylene13

    Meat that is not healthy for you to eat.

  • sabelmouse


  • Nylene13

    You can’t even give an intelligent response. I am not surprised.

  • sabelmouse

    can’t, and won’t bother with your patronising inanity are different things.

  • tomonthebay

    Hominids have been eating meat for 2 million years, Nylene. Played a critical role in increasing our brain mass and making us what we are.