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Coronavirus Apathy and How America Mourns Deaths

By Mandy Snyder

It was a May morning, and I sat down at the table with a green smoothie (a quarantine staple). In between my father’s empty coffee mug and the half- filled crossword puzzle, I saw a headline sprawled across the LA Times: “U.S. coronavirus deaths pass 100,000 mark in under four months, leading the world.” 100,000 deaths was more than the Korean and Vietnam war combined. 100,000 deaths was not far off from the casualties of World War I. 100,000 regular people with families and lives were gone. But in that moment, it wasn’t the figure that horrified me. It was the fact that I felt nothing.

For all my efforts to wrap my head around that gargantuan number, I could not empathize to the degree that I hoped. My indifference did not result from disconnectedness: I was volunteering with an organization to distribute face shields to nursing homes which were reporting deaths of elderly patients and healthcare workers alike every day. I should have been able to feel the loss. I contrasted my present apathy to my parents’ recollections of 9/11. They described the event as a shock, rocking a nation and scarring individuals for years to come. When the planes hit, it was as if time had stood still. And yet the pandemic by May had killed more than 30 times as many people as 9/11 had, and I could not relate to the trauma. Speaking to my peers on the matter, many felt similarly towards the pandemic. On the surface, it seemed as if over the span of a generation, young people had become desensitized to loss. However, exploring America’s reactions to past traumas reveals a more complex relationship between different types of tragedies and subsequently how we cope.

Gen Z is the generation that grew up with the highest suicide rates and the era of mass shootings. Between 1999 and 2014, the overall suicide rate in America increased by 24%. Over the past 10 years alone, we have experienced 180 school shootings and many more mass shootings. At the same time, hate crime violence was on the rise, hitting a 16 year high in 2019. We didn’t even have time to digest one tragedy when another hate crime or mass shooting had struck. We were accustomed to violence, but in contrast to our parents, who feared bombings from the Soviet Union during the cold war, the violence was innate to our society. When a threat is outside our society, we can mobilize; we may not be able to control the enemy, but we can control our collectiveresponse and find strength in banding together against a common enemy. When a threat is among us, we lose that sense of security and control which a society under a common ideology and set of values provides.

Following an endless chain of mass shootings, schools across America underwent lockdown training and amended protocols as shootings evolved. Educators’ responses at times were borderline sardonic, as with the “Run, Hide, Fight” campaign which followed the Parkland Shooting. I recall laughing with classmates at the images of trying to fight off a gunman with a ruler in a heroic gesture. Whether the laughter was warranted or a coping mechanism, I cannot say. Regardless, we were raised in this reality. We grew up with the mentality that we had to adjust to impending violence, rather than our policy-makers taking steps to protect us. This lent to a sense of loss of control among a generation. Detaching ourselves from lives lost was perhaps a coping mechanism for coming to terms with the fact that innocent lives were taken and that we could just as easily be next. The combination of disaster fatigue and detachment as a subconscious survival strategy likely contributed to our apparent desensitization.

Yet one could point out that other generations grew up with different traumas: after allgenerations before us grew up with World War II, the Vietnam War, drafts, etc. Indeed, thedifferent ways in which our nation mourns deaths caused by war versus a pandemic demonstrates how different generations became desensitized to different manifestations of violence.

When we mourn those lost in a war, we do it ceremoniously and view those losses as almost more poignant than COVID-related losses, the latter of which can be viewed as more arbitrary. In both scenarios, we lose American lives, but perhaps because war is tied to ideology, we view the loss as more personal; as more of an attack on our person, our nationality, and more broadly our identity. Furthermore, war is associated with immediate destruction, whereas a pandemic is a slow burn. War is tangible; a virus is not. Our proclivity for instant gratification means we don’t have the patience to mourn a gradual grim reaper.

As we approach 320,000 deaths caused by the coronavirus (probably much more at the time of this publication), it is likely my response will not have changed: I will be as unaffected by a third of a million deaths as I was a tenth, or even a hundredth. And while there is no reason to feel guilt over elements mostly out of our control, perhaps we can start to come to terms with our own realities, and evaluate where and why certain losses are lost on us.

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