As Lewis points out in her article for the Times, some of this optic disconnect and alienation is due to America’s medical privacy laws; also ethical questions about photographing dying or dead patients. Access is also an issue, since many COVID wards are so tightly restricted that even family members are not allowed in. But the result is that we can’t process headlines like “280,000 people dead,” unable, as we are, to know what it looks like to die on a ventilator or of renal failure. Health-care workers might beg us to take the pandemic seriously with upsetting testimonies, but unless we’re working in a hospital ourselves, there’s no concrete vision of what these pleas actually mean. Even documentaries about the pandemic — like 76 Days, which follows the outbreak in the epicenter of Wuhan, China — struggle to pick out firm characters, hidden, as they are, behind either the PPE of medical staff, or the tangle of tubes and respirators of the dying.
What, then, is there to do? We should treat COVID-19 like the war that it is. We ought to nationally read the names of the dead and plan monuments, as we do for fallen soldiers; we should graphically describe, and publish, the full extent of what it means to fight, and lose, to this disease. “It’s time to make people scared and uncomfortable,” Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the Times on Monday. “It’s time for some sharp, focused terrifying realism.”