It's hard to have much faith in humanity these days

As the U.S. goes from one COVID-19 milestone to the next, I can't help but wonder why we do this to ourselves.

Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium, home to the school’s football team, can hold 65,632 people. I looked this up earlier in the month after the ACC Network posted a video of a jam-packed crowd at the school’s first game of the season.

“ABSOLUTE CHILLS,” reads the caption as students jumped up and down to the beat of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” while the players made their entrance. It was an awesome spectacle, and one I would ordinarily point to as a reason I love sports. But I was too preoccupied with death — a theme of the past year and a half — to feel much joy.

The students in attendance? They are probably fine. Virginia Tech requires its students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, something the school is serious enough about to unenroll students who refused to follow protocol. So that’s good.

The reason this particular clip plays on a loop in my mind these days has much more to do with what a crowd of that size represents than with the specific gathering. I look out at the sea of people and feel a sense of horror and amazement over the size of it all. 65,632 people is a lot — and yet that number represents less than 10% of all COVID deaths in the U.S.

As I write this, the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center lists the COVID death toll in the U.S. at 667,894. Globally, there have been more than 4.6 million lives lost as a result of the pandemic.

When the New York Times published the May 24, 2020 edition of its paper, it marked the 100,000th U.S. COVID death by covering the entire front page and calling the death toll “an incalculable loss.”

And on June 16, 2021, as the country closed in on its 600,000th death, the Times again gave some prominent real estate to the story on its front page, but it was no longer the only story. “A Once Unfathomable Toll,” read the title of its front page graphic. It took 89 days to go from 1 death to 100,000 deaths; 118 days from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths; 83 days from 200,000 to 300,000; 36 days from 300,000 to 400,000; 34 days from 400,000 to 500,000. While the pace of the deaths did slow after those first 500,000 thanks to vaccines, it still only took 113 days to reach 600,000.

I really just don’t know how to process the enormity of it all. The Times’s shift in language from “incalculable loss” for 100,000 to “once unfathomable toll” for 600,000 says it all. We’ve come to accept the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, and more. By not putting an end to this pandemic when we were given the opportunity, we collectively accepted the unacceptable. This is just normal now.

If you read through the Times’s May 24, 2020 paper, you can find a few moments where the writers were really trying to hammer home the point that this shouldn’t be acceptable, that we have a responsibility as human beings to lessen the death toll as much as possible. Whoever needed to hear that… didn’t.

Without thinking much about it, this is just how my mind works these days. I see a video of a crowded stadium packed to the brim and think, “The death toll is literally 10 times as big as this.” And then when I see grim stories in the news marking milestones like “1 in every 500 U.S. residents have died of Covid-19,” I think about what that number would represent in various situations. For instance, 0.2% of 65,632 is 131. If someone said, “Sure, we could prevent the deaths of 131 people at this event, but is it really that big of a deal?” they would be instantly labeled insensitive and irresponsible. So why then when you expand that same fraction to a country of 331.4 million is all this death met with such a shrug?

Yes, the “1 in 500” language is not a strict “you have a 1 in 500 chance of dying from COVID” statement. It could actually be much lower or much higher (people 85+ have a 1 in 35 chance; 65-84 have a 1 in 150 chance; 40-64 have a 1 in 780 chance, etc.). Does that actually make things any better? These are all still people with lives and families and friends who love them.

For a while, there were real questions to be asked about the trade-offs between mitigation measures and the effect those measures would have on our everyday lives. For instance, lockdowns led a lot of businesses to permanently close their doors. But with the vaccines, that’s all changed. If we all got vaccinated, things could pretty much go right back to normal. But there remain a lot of people who simply won’t do this, and by refusing, are keeping the pandemic going. Yes, unvaccinated people are the most likely to die from the virus, but the effects of their actions extend beyond themselves.

I am lucky. I have not had COVID, nor has my wife. We’re both vaccinated, and we haven’t lost any family members as a result of the pandemic. Even so, there is a personal angle to this that I can’t quite shake. That is, one argument that comes up a lot when discussing LGBTQ rights is that trans people represent such a tiny fraction of the population that we shouldn’t have legal protections in things like employment, housing, and public accommodations. “Does it matter if we’re a small fraction? We’re still people, after all…” I’d respond. It’s my view that every person should have these sorts of protections, whether they represent 0.6% of the population or 60%.

A man wears an 'UNVACCINATED' t-shirt ahead of former U.S. President Donald Trump's "Save America" rally on August 21, 2021 in Cullman, Alabama. With the number of coronavirus cases rising rapidly and no more ICU beds available in Alabama, the host city of Cullman declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency two days before the Trump rally. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 67.5% of the state's population has not been fully vaccinated. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

0.6% is the best estimate we have for how many people in the U.S. identify as transgender. It sounds like a tiny number, but it represents more than 1.8 million people. I’d often pivot to the 1.8 million number when trying to rebut the “tiny fraction” argument, thinking that there’s no way someone could see a number of actual human beings in the hundreds of thousands or millions and think to themselves, “I do not care about these lives.” It’s scary to think that 0.2% of the U.S. population has died as a result of this pandemic and unvaccinated Americans largely shrug at the fact that the act of them not being vaccinated is potentially driving that number even higher.

At what point do the pandemic-prolongers begin caring about those they don’t personally know? Maybe there is no point. If so, I don’t really know what that says about humanity — but it’s not good. What I do know is that my mental health is a disaster right now, and the ever-growing COVID death toll is only making things worse.