I wrote in the past about remembrances during Memorial Day and how the language of war and combat is often appropriated in medicine. As we reflect on the meaning of this day, in the context of the events of the past several months, I think many of us cannot help but make comparisons between war and the pandemic. Certainly, the death tolls help to bring that into focus. At this writing, there have been more than 345,000 deaths worldwide, including nearly 100,000 in the United States. This U.S. total basically equals our nation’s combat and other war-related deaths of the last 70 years (since the Korean War). You may have seen that The New York Times published names of those who have lost their lives during the pandemic (the print edition could only fit a fraction but still powerful; the online interactive graphic is impactful). Other news outlets have published stories of families affected by both, grieving for loved ones lost in war and recently succumbed to SARS-CoV-2. I imagine there are few people in the country who haven’t had their life touched by one or the other.
The irony is that Memorial Day is also a time for gathering. It is the unofficial start of summer and coming as it does as many states are lifting restrictions, there is concern that a bump in COVID-19 related illness, hospitalization and mortality may occur as people who have been isolated for months seek a release. Here in Connecticut, the state parks have instituted a limit on entries, and many parks have been closed after reaching those limits the last few days. On the other hand, you have probably seen news footage of the boardwalks of Ocean City, MD or Lake of the Ozarks, AR, for example, to see what the general public is up to. I realize it is a lot to ask for people to maintain physical distancing for long periods of time. But it is disheartening to see the behavior and refusal to use masks, a practice that appears to prevent spread. It makes me think of when we’ve escalated involvement in wars (think Viet Nam, Iraq surge) by sending more soldiers into battle, with the main result being more death and casualties.
Back to the holiday, I have to admit I enjoy the pomp of a Memorial Day parade. Although I have chosen not to march (USAF 1990-7, but definitely would not fit into my uniform today), I appreciate the chance to honor the soldiers who participate. I am glad that our municipalities saw the wisdom of cancelling these gatherings this year, although I wonder given the general tenor of discussion in the country, if the decision would have been made in the last week what might be happening. I fear a sense of complacency, which probably exists for many reasons. People who aren’t in healthcare see many of the identified cases have been mild or asymptomatic (and that number grows as testing increases) and form the opinion that it isn’t that bad. Lots of messaging in a politically charged environment leads people to equate risky behavior with freedom. The pressure to rejuvenate a collapsing economy weighs heavy on our collective minds. You’ve no doubt heard the saying “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it;” with short attention spans and rapid news cycles, I fear March and April already represent the past as referenced in this quote.
Every year at Memorial Day, I can’t help but think that the death of my friend in Afghanistan back in 2010 was completely senseless. That’s been the most personal connection for me, but as a physician in the military I also met many returning soldiers and got to understand the horrors they endured, and I remember. This year, it’s accompanied by reflecting on the horror stories from the pandemic front lines; along with the thought that many of the lives lost – particularly among healthcare workers – were avoidable, had our country not lapsed on the need to fund pandemic preparation and had the response been timelier and more robust. Hopefully, we move forward in a sensible and responsible way, and avoid more unnecessary loss.