It was never supposed to get this bad. A strange new virus was ravaging China and parts of Europe, but it would never come here. Then it came here, but it would only be a few cases, and it was nothing to worry about. Then it was something to worry about, but not for long: It’ll be gone by April, Donald Trump said just over a year ago, or maybe by Easter. Even people not as careless, stupid, and reflexively self-serving as Trump originally had trouble conceiving of a coronavirus death toll of more than 100,000 or so.
But now, nearly at the one year mark of the pandemic, the United States has surged past even that horrifically high number: America has lost roughly half a million lives to COVID-19, a larger toll than any other nation in the world has suffered, thanks in no small part to a grievous failure of its institutions and leadership. “We’ve done worse than most any other country,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC on Monday, as the nation closed in on its grim milestone. “And we’re a highly-developed rich country.” As many Americans already knew, but which more perhaps have now learned, that relative wealth does not make a nation immune from suffering; it may provide the illusion of a safety net, but it hasn’t kept us, as a country, from falling and falling.
“People were thinking we were being hyperbolic,” Fauci said of one of his early death toll predictions of 250,000, “and now here we are with a half a million deaths.”
It���s a staggering toll, and it will continue to grow in the coming months as the virus—including new mutations of it—spread in the U.S. and around the world. But it also comes as the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter: Infections have been dropping, vaccinations are ramping up, and a gradual return to normalcy should arrive in the coming months. Joe Biden appears poised to make good on his promise of 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office, and is now aiming even higher, vowing to make vaccines available to everyone in the country by late July. Increased manufacturing and a forthcoming third vaccine should help him do that. “Everyone wants more vaccines,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer told the Associated Press Sunday. “I do know that the continuous increase is great news for all of us.”
The challenges, of course, will be continuing to smooth out the logistical issues that have plagued the vaccine rollout and convincing enough Americans to take their shots. Overcoming skepticism about the vaccines, particularly ones produced in record time, was always going to be an obstacle, including among minority groups that have good reason to be suspicious of the medical establishment. But as the New York Times’ David Leonhardt pointed out last week, part of the reticence to the vaccines Americans have expressed in recent polls may have to do with counter-productive messaging around them in the media and among some public health experts; intense focus on ways in which inoculations are imperfect could be giving some the impression that they are ineffective. “Our discussion about vaccines has been poor,” the virologist Muge Cevik told Leonhardt. “Really poor.”
Indeed, messaging about vaccines has at times contributed to an impression that the pandemic—and all of the stupefying changes it has wreaked on everyday life—will never end, a perception that would seem only to exacerbate the pandemic-fatigue that leads individuals to take significant risks in the present. It’s a notion as self-defeating as it is false, but it’s also understandable: Battered for a year now by one unthinkable milestone after another, with the false hope offered by Trump and others serving only to make matters worse, it is natural to regard good news with suspicion. How could a nation that has now lost 500,000 of its citizens in a year bring itself to be optimistic?
But it is that promise of better times in the near future that could strengthen our resolve to power through this bleak present. Uncertainties remain about more dangerous variants and our mass vaccination program, and we remain in what Biden described, during his inaugural address, as our “winter of peril.” But that winter will give way to spring, and, sometime after, to something that has come to feel as hard to imagine as our current circumstances had once been: something like normalcy.
— “I Will Destroy You”: Why a Biden Aide Threatened a Politico Reporter— For Donald Trump, Sarah Palin’s Fall Shows the Limits of Media Obsession— The Chaos Behind Donald McNeil’s New York Times Exit— The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin Billionaire Arthur Hayes— Ivanka Trump Thinks Her “Political Reemergence” Is Just Around the Corner— Will the Democrats’ Focus on Marjorie Taylor Greene Backfire?— How the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Was Hobbled by Turf Wars and Magical Thinking— From the Archive: The Complicated Dynamic Between the Young JFK, His Formidable Brother, and Their Tycoon Father
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.