The lesson of the pandemic: An incremental approach won’t save us

Deploying an “excess deaths” methodology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes an estimated 299,028 deaths to COVID-19. Yes, there’s a chance that other, unidentified, causes resulted in a higher overall death toll this year than last, but such factors might also reduce the toll. The larger part of the difference between this number,[1] and the official toll, 220,987,[2] is likely in undiagnosed cases and deaths indirectly attributable to the disease.[3] I’ve been watching the “excess deaths” number for a while[4] because it is likely closer to a complete picture. Quoting at length, here are the very ugly numbers:

By this measure, excess deaths peaked during the week of April 5-11, when actual deaths were 40.4% higher than would have been expected in a normal year.

A second peak occurred during the week of Aug. 2-8, when actual deaths were 23.5% higher than they should have been.

The U.S. has experienced excess deaths every single week since March, the authors noted.

The researchers also examined excess death rates by age group and by race and ethnicity.

It’s been well established that the older you are, the higher the risk of dying of COVID-19. But the oldest Americans aren’t the ones who experienced the biggest jump in excess deaths. That dubious distinction goes to adults ages 25 to 44 — deaths for people in this age group were 26.5% higher than expected over the 36-week period.

By comparison, based on averages from 2015 through 2019, deaths in 2020 were:

• 2% lower than expected for Americans under the age of 25.

• 14.4% higher for Americans ages 45 to 64.

• 24.1% higher for those ages 65 to 74.

• 21.5% higher for those ages 75 to 84.

• 14.7% higher for those ages 85 and up.

All racial and ethnic groups saw higher than expected death tolls since late January, but the magnitude of these increases varied greatly, the researchers found. Compared with their expectations for a normal year, actual deaths in 2020 were:

• 53.6% higher for Latino Americans.

• 36.6% higher for Asian Americans

• 32.9% higher for Black Americans.

• 28.9% higher for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

• 11.9% higher for white Americans.[5]

I’m noticing that we had a second peak in early August.[6] My guess is that, allowing for incubation periods and delays in testing, this would probably be a bit on the early side of the time that college students, especially, started returning to school.[7] As I look back at that period, I see that Pennsylvania restaurant and bar owners were plotting a rebellion against reopening restrictions imposed by the governor.[8] Mostly, I see that capitalists and capitalist libertarians were on full whine mode about restrictions meant to limit the contagion,[9] and that our attention had wandered to other important issues like racial justice and the election. In short, we had let our guard down and I don’t think, even as we seem headed into another surge,[10] we’re raising it back up.

There are lessons to be learned from this, few, if any, of them bend the arc towards the preservation of life, and I must say at the outset that I do not have immediate answers.

The big one is that life goes on. A single-minded focus on the pandemic ignores problems like social injustice, which also appears in the statistics quoted above,[11] economic injustice, which makes it more difficult for people to comply with restrictions that impact their livelihoods and even deprives them of health insurance just as they might really need it,[12] and political malfeasance, in which privilege and neoliberal dogma has outweighed a need to take care of human beings in dire situations.[13] These problems don’t just go away just because here’s this disease that is killing hundreds of thousands of people.[14] We needed to be working on these problems before the pandemic and before the climate crisis; we failed, and now we have these problems compounding each other by exacerbating distrust of each other and distrust even of the medical and scientific authorities trying to save lives.

And all this, just as the shit is barely beginning to hit the fan with the climate crisis. With a combination of malice, greed, ineptitude, and negligence, we’ve dug ourselves into a hole that I don’t think we can dig ourselves out of.

It was the immediacy of the climate crisis that led me to believe that an incremental approach to social and environmental problems, such as the likes of Barack Obama and Joe Biden profess, was inadequate in the first place. With the pandemic, racial injustice, and all these lives lost, we see its shortcomings all the more.

The incremental approach in social movement theory essentially allows elites to save their own skins with the barest of changes. This approach relies on persistence and a cyclical approach, where each cycle has ups and downs and may take years. The hope, the mere hope, is that given enough time, progress can be made.[15] The enemy here is what I call functionalist conservatism: All politicians, by the very act of gaining influence or winning office, inherently acquire some interest in the status quo that now offers them power and privileges over the rest of us. That interest is inherently in opposition even to essential social change that would respond to existential threats.[16]

But with widening economic inequality and a worsening climate crisis, we must see that the approach has failed. With people still getting killed, whether by the pandemic, the police, or other forms of violence (including structural[17]), and with the interplay of economic injustice with other forms of social injustice (kyriarchy), we must view claims of social progress, such as in civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and women’s rights, much more skeptically: None of that ‘progress’ will matter when we are all dead.

We can’t say that the incremental approach has accomplished nothing at all. What we can say absolutely is that we are swimming against the current. We have every reason to believe the current is still winning, that we will drown before it abates.

Which is why we need a different approach.

  1. [1]Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived
  2. [2]New York Times, “Covid in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count,” October 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html
  3. [3]Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived
  4. [4]Emma Brown et al., “U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19,” Washington Post, April 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2020/04/27/covid-19-death-toll-undercounted/; Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard, and Aaron C. Davis, “Coronavirus death toll: Americans are almost certainly dying of covid-19 but being left out of the official count,” Washington Post, April 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/coronavirus-death-toll-americans-are-almost-certainly-dying-of-covid-19-but-being-left-out-of-the-official-count/2020/04/05/71d67982-747e-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html; Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived; Denise Lu, “The True Coronavirus Toll in the U.S. Has Already Surpassed 200,000,” New York Times, August 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/12/us/covid-deaths-us.html
  5. [5]Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived
  6. [6]Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived
  7. [7]Tim Elfrink, “‘We’ve got to do better than this’: College students raise alarm by packing bars, avoiding masks,” Washington Post, August 17, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/17/alabama-georgia-college-parties-covid/; Lindsay Ellis, “Colleges Hoped for an In-Person Fall. Now the Dream is Crumbling,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 20, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/colleges-hoped-for-an-in-person-fall-now-the-dream-is-crumbling; Notre Dame University, “Notre Dame enacts two weeks of remote instruction,” August 18, 2020, https://news.nd.edu/news/notre-dame-enacts-two-weeks-of-remote-instruction/; Andy Thomason, “After Only One Week, Chapel Hill Abandons In-Person Fall Semester,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 17, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-only-one-week-chapel-hill-abandons-in-person-fall-semester
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Regarding the planned ultimatum by southwestern Pennsylvania bar and restaurant owners,” Not Housebroken, August 7, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/06/regarding-the-planned-ultimatum-by-southwestern-pennsylvania-bar-and-restaurant-owners/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Blaming the victims, capitalist-style,” Not Housebroken, August 15, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/15/blaming-the-victims-capitalist-style/; David Benfell, “The capitalist libertarian solution to the COVID-19 pandemic: Kill the poor,” Not Housebroken, August 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/13/the-capitalist-libertarian-solution-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-kill-the-poor/
  10. [10]Antonia Noori Farzan et al. “U.S. surpasses 64,000 new coronavirus infections two days in a row for first time since late July,” Washington Post, October 16, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/10/16/coronavirus-covid-live-updates-us/; Derek Thompson, “The COVID-19 Fall Surge Is Here. We Can Stop It,” Atlantic, October 12, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/how-keep-fall-surge-becoming-winter-catastrophe/616674/
  11. [11]David Benfell, “On police,” Not Housebroken, August 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/10/on-police/; David Benfell, “Don’t just defund the police. Abolish them,” Not Housebroken, August 29, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/25/dont-just-defund-the-police-abolish-them/; David Benfell, “Eviction and race war,” Not Housebroken, September 2, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/01/eviction-and-race-war/; David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/11/on-the-pretense-of-law-and-order/; David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/; David Benfell, “The very scary way to four more years,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/25/the-very-scary-way-to-four-more-years/; Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The capitalist libertarian solution to the COVID-19 pandemic: Kill the poor,” Not Housebroken, August 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/13/the-capitalist-libertarian-solution-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-kill-the-poor/; David Benfell, “Blaming the victims, capitalist-style,” Not Housebroken, August 15, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/15/blaming-the-victims-capitalist-style/; David Benfell, “Eviction and race war,” Not Housebroken, September 2, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/01/eviction-and-race-war/; David Benfell, “Normalized ‘property rights,’” Not Housebroken, September 23, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/23/normalized-property-rights/; David Benfell, “Not even a euphemism: ‘Houseless,’” Not Housebroken, October 18, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/10/18/not-even-a-euphemism-houseless/
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Time for somebody and something new,” Not Housebroken, July 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/07/27/time-for-somebody-and-something-new/; David Benfell, “We need to do everything different,” Not Housebroken, July 30, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/07/30/we-need-to-do-everything-different/; David Benfell, “Off with their heads,” Not Housebroken, August 19, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/17/off-with-their-heads/; David Benfell, “Ice cream and hair appointments,” Not Housebroken, September 3, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/03/ice-cream-and-hair-appointments/; David Benfell, “Bob Woodward’s book won’t matter in November,” Not Housebroken, September 10, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/10/bob-woodwards-book-wont-matter-in-november/; David Benfell, “It is now too late,” Not Housebroken, September 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/12/it-is-now-too-late/; David Benfell, “On the plea for peace,” Not Housebroken, September 22, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/22/on-the-plea-for-peace/; David Benfell, “The pandemic as a harbinger,” Not Housebroken, October 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/10/09/the-pandemic-as-a-harbinger/; David Benfell, “Bloody November,” Not Housebroken, October 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/08/bloody-november/; David Benfell, “The mysterious expectation that elites give a damn,” Not Housebroken, October 15, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/01/the-mysterious-expectation-that-elites-give-a-damn/; David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/; David Benfell, “On wishing the delusional raging narcissist-in-chief well,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/10/03/on-wishing-the-delusional-raging-narcissist-in-chief-well/
  14. [14]Emma Brown et al., “U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19,” Washington Post, April 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2020/04/27/covid-19-death-toll-undercounted/; Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard, and Aaron C. Davis, “Coronavirus death toll: Americans are almost certainly dying of covid-19 but being left out of the official count,” Washington Post, April 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/coronavirus-death-toll-americans-are-almost-certainly-dying-of-covid-19-but-being-left-out-of-the-official-count/2020/04/05/71d67982-747e-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html; Karen Kaplan, “U.S. deaths are about 300,000 higher than expected since the coronavirus arrived,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-10-20/excess-deaths-in-united-states-since-coronavirus-arrived; Denise Lu, “The True Coronavirus Toll in the U.S. Has Already Surpassed 200,000,” New York Times, August 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/12/us/covid-deaths-us.html
  15. [15]Bill Moyer, JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  16. [16]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/; David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  17. [17]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).

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