Next Memorial Day

As time goes by, I like to use Thanksgiving as a day to take stock of how my life has changed over the previous year. And I’ll do that again when Nov. 26, 2020, arrives. 

But as I watch how Americans are handling Memorial Day weekend in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I expect that come May 31, 2021, I’ll be taking stock of a very dark year that begins now.

A couple hours ago, my wife and I sat on our front lawn with two friends, both households seated several feet apart from one another. We watched as the best Memorial Day parade I’ve ever seen rolled past on Main Street.

It was not a large parade by any means.

There was a small group of socially distanced local veterans, a small group of face mask-wearing scouts, a brass band (all members of the same family) pulled on a trailer, a school bus, two fire trucks, and a few decorated cars. 

“Normal” parade stuff wasn’t present. No candy was tossed. There were no politicians glad-handing the sparse onlookers for support. No crowds gathered around the town memorial for the wreath-laying ceremony.

But there were other things I haven’t experienced in a long time. The thrill of live music. The pleasure taken from seeing a stranger smile and wave. An abiding silence that lingered for a bit after the wreath was laid at the memorial.

Then I returned to my porch and checked the news. Crowded beaches and swimming parties. A raceway with no social distancing, let alone face masks. Downtowns packed with people.

Someone was quoted as saying that this wave of the pandemic is over, and the second wave won’t be here ’til fall, so it’s all good.

The next two to four weeks will tell us how steep a price we’re paying as a country. I’d love to think that it’s a lot of fuss over nothing, but so far that concept hasn’t shown itself to be viable. The second wave will likely wash over us well before fall, making for a long, hot, heartbreaking summer.

As Memorial Day was underway this year, the New York Times filled its front page with the names of a handful of the nearly 100,000 Americans dead as a result of the pandemic. Given that Memorial Day is dedicated to the remembrance of soldiers killed in service, here’s a comparison of that number to some military death tolls.

We’re at roughly the halfway point to the 215,000 combat deaths from the Civil War. That’s U.S. and Confederate Armies combined. In terms of Confederate dead, U.S. coronavirus deaths exceed that total by about 6,000. The Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865. 

From 1917 to 1918, there were around 54,000 U.S. combat deaths during World War I.

During the United States’ involvement in WWII – from 1941-1945 – there were roughly 291,500 combat deaths among U.S. Soldiers. That puts COVID-19 at one third of that death rate after less than three months.

We passed the milestone of Vietnam War combat deaths (approximately 47,000) a while ago, with the roughly 33,500 U.S. combat deaths in the Korean War lapped before that.

In total, between the start of the American Revolution in 1775 and today, there have been approximately 666,500 U.S. soldiers killed in combat. COVID-19 has managed to take around 15% of that number in a quarter of a year or so. 

My point here is that, come next Memorial Day, we’ll most likely be in a position to memorialize pandemic victims in numbers equivalent to a major war. And those deaths will largely have been preventable. 

Since this America, though, where science doesn’t matter, sacrifice is less important that seeming tough and smart to your pals, and something’s not worth fighting unless you can shoot it, the deaths won’t be prevented.

Later on today I’ll go to a family barbecue where we’ll remain socially distant and wear face masks as much as possible. It seems silly to wear face masks outside, but with immunocompromised people around, silly is a small price to pay. We’ll make and eat food from a safe distance, and when it’s time to go home, we’ll air hug one another. It’ll be a bummer, but it’s better than nothing.

Looking at how things are being handled around the country today, I worry that a year from now, “better than nothing” will be an absolute luxury that many won’t be able to afford.

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