According to the latest figures from CNN, the coronavirus pandemic has now killed more than 3,000 people in the United States.
That’s a grim milestone, because it means the virus’s death toll has now exceeded that of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, which took the lives of 2,977.
Although the significance of the two are incomparable, and stretches far beyond their death tolls, the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on society will be immense. Estimates show the coronavirus could still be taking lives for months — or even years — and so the full extent of its tragedy is still unknown.
In the long view, the virus seems likely to take many more American lives than Al Qaeda and ISIS combined — not to mention the virus’s global reach, which has killed more than 38,000 people around the world.
At the same time, September 11 casts such a long shadow on the national psyche that it’s been invoked repeatedly during the coronavirus pandemic. And, to be fair, there are strong resonances between the two tragedies.
Both resulted in an approval ratings bump for national leaders, for one, but over time, the historical record demonstrated profound failures of intelligence and leadership at the White House.
In the case of September 11, it gradually emerged that the Bush administration had dismissed CIA warnings that Osama Bin Laden had been intent on carrying out an attack on US soil.
And now, with the US healthcare system struggling under the weight of more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other nation on Earth, damning evidence is emerging that the Trump administration squandered the crucial six-week period after experts became convinced that the virus was going to wreak havoc in America — a window it could have used to corral medical resources and crack down on the first domestic cases to prevent them from spreading.
But perhaps the most significant parallel — and one that, in the case of the coronavirus, remains unwritten — is the story of how the nation will respond to the tragedy.
September 11 led to a pair of brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have dragged on to this day, alongside related regional conflicts, and have claimed the lives of what some experts estimate to be nearly half a million people. The effort has been extraordinarily expensive for US taxpayers, according to an estimate last year, costing something on the order of $6.4 trillion. And after all that, it’s hazy whether the War on Terror has even accomplished very much for national security.
The US might have stumbled in its initial response to the coronavirus, but the opportunity is still there to change course and do better. At the end of a gloomy investigation into how the pandemic is likely to play out, for instance, Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong abruptly changes tone, imagining a future in which public health investments and international cooperation craft a world that’s prepared for the next outbreak.
“In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere,” Yong wrote, in an unforgettable final line, “and is brought to heel within a month.”