This month, the United States recorded a horrific milestone: 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. Someday, historians will look back at the pandemic and note all the mistakes and failures that helped make it the most deadly outbreak of disease in more than a century. But if they are wise, they will also note this past year as one in which Americans were asked to rise to a challenge — and did so in impressive fashion.
It's tempting to focus our attention on all the ways our leaders and people went wrong. The 45th president repeatedly lied about the severity of the threat, resisted basic measures to curb it and held out false hopes that only aided the virus. Some Americans protested against public health mandates and selfishly disregarded medical guidance, spreading disease in the process.
But the noise and fury in some quarters obscure the broad acceptance of unwanted changes. For the most part, Americans have recognized the danger and have embraced unprecedented obligations.
Most people have gotten used to faithfully covering their faces when they're out in public and interacting with others. Most have sharply curtailed social contact — even with family. Most have largely given up dining inside restaurants. Most have gamely accepted not being able to attend ballgames, concerts and festivals.
None of this was foreordained. In past crises, such as the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Great Recession, the citizenry was asked to make few if any sacrifices. On the contrary: Our leaders urged us to carry on as usual.
The pandemic is the first major national episode since World War II that required us to give up anything significant. At the start of 2020, we could hardly have imagined how radically life would change. Who could have imagined Americans adopting face masks, social distancing and remote work on such a vast scale? Who would have thought we would accept a brutal economic downturn as a regrettable necessity?
I speak as someone who expressed doubts about our willingness to step up. Even as the disease gathered steam in places like South Korea and Italy, a lot of Americans preferred to ignore reality.
By late February of last year, alarm bells were ringing. "We expect we will see community spread in this country," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on February 25. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."
But her boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, promptly insisted the virus was "contained" — one of many false administration claims that fostered deadly complacency.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn't cancel the city's massive St. Patrick's Day parades until just a week before they were scheduled. Not until March 12 did Broadway theaters halt productions. Not until March 11 did the National Basketball Association suspend play. We were collectively reluctant to confront what had to be done.
But that changed. By April, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, 80% of Americans supported stay-at-home orders. By May, more than half of Americans said they were wearing masks every time they left the house, and the great majority didn't plan to stay in a hotel, go to a live event or fly over the summer.
The inconveniences and disruptions went on much longer than expected at the outset, but most people didn't falter. By December, 73 percent said they were wearing face coverings on every venture outside the home, and 70 percent said they were prepared to abide by social distancing guidelines for another six months.
Now that vaccines are available, the great majority of us are determined to get the shots. Gallup Polls found that in September, only 50 percent were willing to be vaccinated, but by February, the number was 71 percent.
The death toll would be lower if more people had agreed to adapt as needed. But without the sort of mass support and cooperation we have seen, the number of U.S. fatalities could have been far higher — as high as 2.2 million.
Many lives have been lost because of the actions of an irresponsible minority of people and politicians. But a lot more have been saved by those who stoutly refused to become accomplices to COVID-19. Let history record: Most Americans did what needed to be done.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com