Every American with the capacity to remember can tell you their version of the story.
I can still summon mine with frightening clarity even though I was a school child at the time it was formed.
My mother eased me awake in the first light of a California morning, her ear pressed to the phone as if it were a physical connection to my grandmother, her eyes rimmed by tears.
“Come sit with me,” she said. “I just want you to see what’s going on.”
We watched over and over and over again as the plane hit the tower in a city we’d never visited, filled with people we’d never know. We covered our mouths as they screamed. We held our breath as New Yorkers ran through smoke and debris.
Even 4,300 kilometres away, the 3,000 deaths from September 11, 2001 hit us so personally that we can physically recall the doom entering our bodies. An entire country’s worth of lives changed in a single day.
I say “will learn,” but in truth, I’m not convinced that all Americans will realise we’ve passed this milestone.
This news promises to hit like yet another headline in a cascade of despair-worthy details. Seven months of slow-motion destruction with no clear beginning, end, rhyme or reason.
There’s no video of falling bodies. The world is not offering its condolences.
The invisible enemy robbed us of a single shared experience we can all mourn.
Instead of grappling with a clearly defined tragedy, we’re entering the eighth month of an emergency, leaving Americans little choice but to habituate to the horror.
The US case count continues to rise
The numbers aren’t spiking in the US anymore, but the pandemic is just as complex and fluid as it was back in March.
The country is recording about 35,000 new cases a day, which is down from the peak of 60,000 a day in July, and puts the overall total at roughly 6.4 million cases. At the time of writing, the death toll was just above 193,000.
There are still hotspots, but they’ve moved on from metropolitan centres like New York, Los Angeles and Detroit into disparate rural states like North Dakota, Kansas and Tennessee.
There, the damage must be couched in terms like “per capita” and the absence of refrigerator trucks, celebrities and familiar landmarks makes for boring cable news coverage.
You probably haven’t heard that in Yuma County, Arizona, one out of every 17 residents has tested positive for the virus . Or that in McKinley County, New Mexico, home to a large population of Native Americans, one of every 300 residents died from COVID-19 .
In 13 states, case numbers are still growing. Three states — California, Texas and Florida — have seen more than 600,000 each.
And yet in all 50 states, i ndividual mobility is increasing on a week-to-week basis .
In 49 states you can shop in retail stores, visit a barbershop and sit in church. In 46, you can work out at a gym. In 45, you can dine indoors.
Roughly 61 per cent of universities are offering some form of in-person learning , and only 20 per cent are doing regular testing. That plan, already, has led to at least 51,000 confirmed cases from more than 1,000 colleges.
Roughly 37 per cent of primary and high schools , too, are trying some form of in-person learning.
And all of this is happening while epidemiologists keep warning that this thing is far from over. They say another wave, maybe even a bigger wave, will hit the US this winter .
America’s death toll isn’t changing the conversation
Winter has always been a season of survival. Autumn is typically one for preparation.
But as the last days of America’s summer slide away, the national mindset isn’t changing. The 200,000 deaths haven’t swayed the conversation, let alone steered it towards action.
When 9/11 happened, the US took aggressive, albeit controversial, steps on America’s national security. The president declared a war on terrorism the very next day .
In the absence of a robust federal strategy on coronavirus, Americans did the most American thing in believing their individual actions could indeed fix things.
We were left wearing masks, washing our hands and staying home (or choosing not to do any of that). And even after an extended period of performative motions, roughly 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID-19.
Something about the deaths, the powerlessness — the seven months of limbo — left us dangerously susceptible to magical thinking.
Several forms of magical thinking have taken root
One portion of the population, of course, is living in complete or partial denial.
A quarter of adults believe a conspiracy theory that the pandemic was a planned political scheme and, as such, is not worth taking seriously.
Roughly a third believe that the official death count is falsely inflated , even while the Centers for Disease Control say the count is actually six to 24 times too low in certain regions.
Other Americans give in to an all-or-nothing mindset , arguing, for example, that masks should not be worn because they alone can’t stop the spread or that there’s no possible middle ground between freedom and lockdown.
And not far removed from this thinking is the idea that fear is not warranted because the virus will go away soon — that there’s a silver bullet just around the corner.
Some of this logic comes from political leaders like Donald Trump, who portray possible treatments like hydroxychloroquine or convalescent plasma or injecting bleach as cures before they’ve been proven as treatments.
And of course there’s the false hope that a vaccine will be distributed before the year’s end , which is buoyed by long-held beliefs about American exceptionalism — this idea that the strength of US capitalism will speed things along.
The last method may be the most dangerous
The last method of magical thinking is the hardest to measure, but maybe, also, among the most harmful.
It comes from those Americans who believe the virus is real. Those who understand it isn’t going away soon.
They are complacent. They are numb. They have spent so long in the chronic emergency that their ‘surge capacity’ — the ability to cope with life-altering disasters — is depleted.
Struggling with prolonged uncertainty, they are starting to move on mentally, pushing the virus so far to the periphery that it becomes nothing more than ambient noise.
Social media interactions on US coronavirus stories have fallen 88 per cent since March .
Google search rates for virus news are back where they were before the US went into lockdown .
Mobile phone mobility data shows the US moving through public spaces at pre-pandemic rates.
In a way, this decision to give up and press on is, again, distinctly American.
We’ve seen it with other ever-present but preventable disasters like gun violence, police brutality and climate change.
Is America headed for dystopia?
This week, more than 500,000 Oregon residents — 10 per cent of the state’s population — evacuated due to wildfires so historically bad that they left the West Coast resembling Mars.
Photos of red skies and masked observers had people joking, again, about how America is now a dystopia .
The thing about dystopia stories is that the characters don’t always realise they’re headed for one.
“We read and watch those narratives with terror. But that’s only because we’re on the outside, and can see what’s happening,” wrote journalist Anne Helen Petersen this week .
“Living in a dystopia just feels like living: You get through one day, and then you get through the next, and then the next. You embrace mild self-deception and self-delusion because you must.
What Americans like me are doing right now with coronavirus — tuning out, soldiering on, doing nothing to change a strategy that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives — is not a reckless disregard for reality. It’s an act of survival.
We’re watching 9/11-level deaths week after week after week, but there are no vigils or memorials or flag-draped coffins. We’re not pausing collectively to process the unimaginable. We’re not mourning as a nation.
We’re just doing whatever we can to process a tragedy we’re still living through.
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