“Nothing in post-war history has killed fifty thousand people in America, or twenty thousand in the UK. We are living through a catastrophe without modern precedent or parallel.”
Plenty of things kill tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Americans yearly. We just accept those things as business as usual. Not to mention the much huger annual kill statistics of global phenomena like, for example, industrial air pollution which takes out around a million Chinese people every single year.
My take on Covid-19 is kind of the inverse: why are we making such a hullabaloo about an event whose death toll is (so far!) not even in the big leagues? My answer is that (a) this threat reaches everyone, even rich old white men — even preferentially old men, though not preferentially the rich and Anglo — and (b) there’s no illusion of choice, nor any calculus of agency and benefit (you can get it by accident, and there’s no upside).
People (tacitly or overtly) “agree” to accept the huge annual death tolls from industrial pollution because at some level we realise benefits from living in an industrialised society, and those deaths are implicitly regarded as “the price of progress.” (Especially by the winners in the industrial capitalist system, whose affluence enables them to live in regions, suburbs or enclaves where the air is cleaner.) We accept the huge annual death tolls from cigarette smoking because we rationalise that people choose to smoke, and by choosing not to smoke one can choose safety (though 2nd hand smoke is always a contentious issue).
But anyone could be exposed to Covid-19 without making any risk-taking choices, and no one benefits (except maybe some medical equipment manufacturers, ISPs/software vendors, or authoritarian regimes).
Around 60 million people die on this planet every year. Of those 60 million deaths, a fair number are premature and preventable. Seven million from air pollution, for example. Another seven million from tobacco smoking. So we do witness an on-going catastrophe, a holocaust of sorts, every single year.
War is only one, and far from the greatest, of the preventable killers that ravage our planet on a regular basis. Poverty, inadequate sanitation, drugs, poor diet, malnutrition, contaminated environments… the deaths from these causes are not dramatic one-time events, but a steady drumbeat that (like the ticking of a household clock) has become so familiar that we don’t even hear it any more.