AT THE END OF THE DAY • Kennedy To COVID–A Reflection

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On the afternoon of Sept. 10, my wife and I received a call from our grandson who was working on a homework assignment.  The next day, Sept. 11, was the 19th anniversary of the attack of the World Trade Center and the resulting death of 2,977 people.  He asked a variety of questions about our whereabouts that day, what memories were most vivid, and how we felt as we watched live TV reports as it was happening and throughout the following days.

Then he asked me if that was the most dreadful event of my lifetime.

Up to that point, I had always considered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963) as the most shocking day of my 72-year existence.  I was a 15-year-old sitting in an algebra class when I heard of President Kennedy’s death, and it sent the country into shock and disbelief that lasted for years as investigations and conspiracy theories flourished.  For many, closure finally arrived as his “dream” of going to the moon came to fruition when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, nearly six years after his death.

While I had not prioritized these events before, I conceded that the attack of the World Trade Center had probably moved up to the number two spot on my list.

Other incidents flashed through my mind and I rattled them off to him: The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. The Vietnam War which over the years claimed the lives of 58,220 kids my age, the anti-war and racial justice demonstrations that ensued, and the killing of four students and the wounding of nine others at Kent State University in Ohio by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, just days before I graduated from college. The Watergate burglary in 1972, that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the criminal indictments and several convictions of seven individuals who were involved in the act and another seven individuals who helped cover it up. In 1986, it was the explosion of the Challenger shuttle and the loss of five astronauts and two mission specialists, including one teacher. The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 was the first of many vicious assaults on our kids. Two students killed twelve other students and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves; next came the attack at Virginia Tech in 2007 which killed 33 and wounded 17; another slaughter took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where 17 students were killed, 17 wounded in 2018. The most appalling of all school shootings took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Dec. 14, 2012.  Twenty children, ages six and seven, were killed, along with six adults, the gunman’s mother in an earlier shooting, and the gunman. Then came mass murder incidents, first at an Orlando, FL nightclub where 50 patrons were killed, 53 wounded in 2016; next it was in Las Vegas, NV, where 59 people were killed, 868 injured, 412 by gunfire in 2017; another happened in Sutherland Springs, TX, at the First Baptist Church where 26 were killed, 20 wounded in 2017; and finally in El Paso, TX, at a Walmart store, where 23 were killed, 23 injured in 2019.

Quietly, and with little governmental response, we established a new record in 2019 with 417 mass shootings (four or more injured) and 31 mass murders (four or more killed) per gunviolencearchive.org.

Then came 2020 . . .   

But then, I started thinking about the events of 2020 and where they fit into this discussion.

The year 2020 started off with an impeached President and steadily went downhill from there.  Before he was acquitted by the Senate on Feb 5, 2020, the deadly coronavirus, COVID-19, had already been identified, and the first American victim of the pandemic died on Feb 29, 2020.  As the virus spread and deaths increased, a nationwide shut-down was ordered, schools closed, businesses closed, and massive lay-offs resulted.  COVID-19 related deaths reached a high of 2,752 on May 7, but had declined to 209 by July 5.  Sadly, those downward trends did not continue as the green light was given to begin opening up again without appropriate and effective safeguards being put in place.  As a result, over 70,000 additional Americans have died since that date.

We have lost over 200,000 lives due to COVID-19 in only seven months, and we continue to lose family members, friends, and neighbors at the unbelievable rate of 1,000 per day.  And we are told daily by those in power that this is the best that they can do.  Really?

Around the world, other countries have taken much different courses of action. As of Sept. 25, South Korea (51 million people) has recorded only 393 deaths due to COVID-19; Japan (126 million) 1,520 deaths; Canada (38 million) 9,249 deaths; Germany (84 million) 9,443 deaths; Spain (46 million) 31,118 deaths (per Johns Hopkins University).

These five countries have a combined population of approximately 345 million people, slightly more than the population of the US at 331 million. However, their combined total of deaths due to COVID-19 is 51,723.  That is nearly 150,000 fewer deaths than we have recorded.

This past weekend, professional basketball, baseball, and football teams participated in head to head competition across the country.  Behind the scenes, each of them has made heroic efforts to resume their activities without exposing their players or fans to COVID-19.  The MLB requires two negative tests to participate, the NFL tests players daily, and the NBA tests players every other day (with a quick saliva test they developed themselves in cooperation with Yale University).  Many teams play in empty venues while others play before a limited number of fans. 

Thus far, their unprecedented efforts are having a positive effect.  Their priorities include regular, mandatory testing, the use of face masks, social distancing, prompt and thorough contact tracing when someone tests positive, strict quarantining rules for those who do, and severe penalties for those who do not adhere to those rules.

Meanwhile, we are sending our kids off to school with few of those safeguards in place.  This past week it was noted that more than 88,000 college students across the country have already tested positive.  Some are being quarantined on site; others are being sent home to quarantine.  If only the NBA, NFL, and/or MLB were in charge of ensuring that our kids, our teachers, our transportation workers, first responders, factory workers, and nursing home residents and employees among others, were afforded the same dignity, respect, and safety measures given to those professional athletes.

I called my grandson on Sept. 11 to tell him that I had reconsidered my statements to him from the previous evening. While the assassination of John F. Kennedy truly was a monumental moment in my life and in the history of our country, the introduction of COVID-19, and our pathetic response to it, has now put 2020 at the top of my list as the most dreadful event in my lifetime.

Although “the market” appears strong, the economy is in serious trouble with high unemployment, businesses failing, a recession/depression looming, and a national debt closing in on $27 trillion, 37 percent larger than our annual GDP. 

Racial unrest has been accelerated by the videotaped death of George Floyd (May 25) in broad daylight. Political turmoil is being stoked as the presidential election approaches. Families are straining to safely balance work, school, shopping, travel, entertainment, medical care, births and deaths, weddings and funerals.

The most glaring of these issues is the catastrophic response we have made to COVID-19. We are the richest of all nations with some of the best medical facilities on the planet; yet we have the highest number of positive COVID-19 tests, 6.8 million, and the highest number of deaths of any country in the world.  Go figure!

We are collectively becoming “numb” to chaos, disorganization, denial of medical and scientific realities, violence, disregard for laws and social/political norms, the unemployed, the uninsured, racial inequities, millions on the threshold of eviction and starvation, and death, as 1,000 people are dying needlessly each day because of lack of proper planning and intervention.

The survivors of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” finally figured it out while 675,000 Americans died over a two-year period.  They learned to mask up, (“Obey the laws, wear the gauze”), socially distance (schools, churches, theaters, and saloons were shuttered), and improve sanitation (hand washing, etc.).

October 1918 was the deadliest month of all killing 195,000 Americans as the second wave of the pandemic struck.  My uncle died that month as did 11,000 residents of Philadelphia who ignored pleas to avoid large crowds and joined with 200,000 others in a previously scheduled political parade.

At the end of the day, we can do better.  We must do better.  There is always hope that we will succeed.  Maybe Winston Churchill was right when he stated, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

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