Despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the U.S. has continued to have by far the most COVID infections and deaths per country: one million dead, with no end in sight. This is an unfathomable number, yet in contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, the news media has often downplayed the one-million mark. In May 2020 the New York Times ran a sympathetic headline reading “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss,” using its entire front page to print names of some of the deceased. But when the death toll reached nine times that number, the Times callously wrote, “900,000 Dead, but Many Americans Move On.”
The Times wasn't alone; several large mainstream publications, as well as politicians of both major political parties, have been beating a drum to get “back to normal” for months. The effect has been the manufactured consent to normalize mass death and suffering—to subtly suggest to Americans that they want to move on.
The media has helped to shape public opinion so business can return to the very circumstances that created this ongoing crisis. A return to normal would allow companies to reap profits, while some people work in relative safety from their homes (the target audience of many news organizations' advertisers) at the expense of more vulnerable people who must work or study in person.
This past winter David Leonhardt, the writer of the Times's newsletter “The Morning,” asked Michael Barbaro, the host of the company's podcast “The Daily”: “If COVID is starting to look like a regular respiratory virus, is it rational for us to treat it like something completely different and to disrupt our lives in all these big and consequential ways[?]”
About 200,000 children in the U.S. have lost one or both parents because of COVID—roughly one in every 375 children. This is a big and consequential loss, and those children are probably not among the many who are ready to “move on.” So is it rational? To be calling for the end of lifesaving mitigation efforts and saying they harm children when so many have been orphaned here and worldwide?
Is it rational for Democrats, Republicans and much of the news media to press on toward what writer Tom Scocca calls a policy of “unlimited” COVID?
Is it rational, when as many people have died of COVID in a month as died of AIDS in its worst year (near 50,000 in 1995), to think of the novel coronavirus as a “regular respiratory virus”—and to think that the big and consequential disruptions to worry about are mask wearing and ventilation and not death and debilitation?
Is it rational to ignore high community viral loads in American society and to not do more to lower them so that fewer people are exposed, become sick, transmit onward and possibly die?
Well, it depends on what it is you are trying to rationalize.
If you're trying to get people to accept that what the nation has been doing is okay and that 50,000 deaths in a month should be normalized, then it's rational.
If you don't want people to wonder why in just two years the U.S. death toll for COVID was about 130 percent of the death toll of four decades of HIV—while global COVID deaths amount to less than 20 percent of the world's AIDS deaths—then it's rational.
If you want to manufacture consent for looser pandemic measures in the U.S. rather than more comprehensive ones as communal viral rates demand, then making these claims is rational.
But it's not ethical to manufacture what I call a viral underclass, and it's incorrect to pretend the news media have no role in creating it or in persuading the public that so many deaths are inevitable.
It's a shame that major news outlets are hyping up moving on and returning to normal and not running more pieces calling for an increase in government-funded mitigation efforts (more free high-quality masks and tests, upgraded ventilation in work sites and schools) to stem the tide of death. American norms (rampant incarceration, eviction, homelessness, lack of health care, poor ventilation, and economic inequality) are fairly deadly as is.
Acceding to the “urgency of normal” is “wishful thinking,” epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves wrote in the Nation. Intentionally or unintentionally, “the urgency of normal”—a phrase cropping up a lot lately—is evocative of a phrase Martin Luther King, Jr., used in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City, where he preached about “the fierce urgency of now”: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”
If he were still alive, do you think King would have fought for the fierce urgency of the very normal that produced all this death?