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To what extent is it your fault if you die from COVID in the USA in 2022?


I have very mixed feelings about this Ed Yong essay, which argues that America has achieved a shocking level of indifference to the death toll from the COVID pandemic.

The official death toll from COVID is rapidly approaching one million people: at the moment the CDC calculates it as 959,533, but this is, as Yong points out, certainly an undercount. My own ongoing figuring on this subject back of the envelopes about 1.2 million excess deaths in the USA so far during the pandemic, and around 1.1 million COVID deaths (not all COVID deaths are excess deaths, so the total number of non-COVID excess deaths during the pandemic has probably been in the 150,000-200,000 range to date).

Why isn’t this a bigger deal?

Yong’s argument in a nutshell is that ongoing COVID deaths have now been jammed into the Personal Responsibility frame, so we just don’t care:

Richard Keller, a medical historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that much of the current pandemic rhetoric—the premature talk of endemicity; the focus on comorbidities; the from-COVID-or-with-COVID debate—treats COVID deaths as dismissible and “so inevitable as to not merit precaution,” he has written. “Like gun violence, overdose, extreme heat death, heart disease, and smoking, [COVID] becomes increasingly associated with behavioral choice and individual responsibility, and therefore increasingly invisible.” We don’t honor deaths that we ascribe to individual failings, which could explain, Keller argues, why national moments of mourning have been scarce. There have been few pandemic memorials, save some moving but temporary art projects. Resolutions to turn the first Monday of March into a COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day have stalled in the House and Senate. Instead, the U.S. is engaged in what Keller calls “an active process of forgetting.” If safety is now a matter of personal responsibility, then so is remembrance.

I’m ambivalent about Yong’s take on all this. He rightly points out that various kind of unjust social inequities lead to big health inequities, and the COVID pandemic has illustrated this. For example:

Unvaccinated people are 53 times more likely to die of COVID than vaccinated and boosted people; they’re also more likely to be uninsured, have lower incomes and less education, and face eviction risk and food insecurityWorking-class people were five times more likely to die from COVID than college graduates in 2020, and in California, essential workers continued dying at disproportionately high rates even after vaccines became widely available. Within every social class and educational tier, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people died at higher rates than white people. If all adults had died at the same rates as college-educated white people, 71 percent fewer people of color would have perished.

It seems to me that Yong radically understates the significance of the first sentence in that quote.

Basically, almost nobody would be dying from COVID if everybody who can be was vaxxed and boosted. (There are some immunocompromised people who can’t be, and their vulnerability shouldn’t be understated).

The vaccine is free. It’s available practically everywhere, usually on a walk-in basis, or with a same-day appointment. The social inequities surrounding access to the vaccine, which were a huge issue last winter and spring, have almost completely disappeared (Of course we should continue to strive to eliminate them completely.)

Given all this, why is the personal responsibility frame, which Yong rightly points out is regularly abused to dismiss structural injustice in American society generally and the health care system in particular, not all things considered the right frame here?

I think the answer comes down to something that Yong totally ignores in his fairly long essay: To the extent that people dying from COVID in the USA in 2022 aren’t responsible for their own deaths, it’s not because their poor, or members of minority groups, or otherwise socially marginal: It’s because they’re victims of an extremely successful and incredibly deadly right wing propaganda campaign, that’s very much ongoing.

That Yong doesn’t even mention this factor, let alone make it the centerpiece of his analysis, indicates the extent to which fascist propaganda has been normalized in this country to an even greater extent than the one-million plus and counting deaths from the COVID pandemic.

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