Covid-19 nurses protest.

Members of National Nurses United read the names of nurses who have died--represented by empty pairs of shoes--during the Covid-19 pandemic at a demonstration in front of the White House on May 12, 2021.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Private Deaths in Public Places

As a consequence of gun violence and Covid-19, public space has become a much more dangerous place, yet the solution to this public problem has been privatized.

Almost a week after the Super Bowl, I learned that there had been a shooting at the victory parade for the Kansas City Chiefs. What struck me about the story, however, wasn’t that it happened; what struck me was that it took me three days to learn about it.

I’m not a sports fan, so I wouldn’t have learnt that way. But a mass shooting at a celebration for one of the biggest sports events in the world would seem to be a big enough deal that it would be plastered across the news media. Maybe it was, and maybe I just happened to miss the coverage, but in that same period I remember updates about various other newsworthy events. Just not this one.

In part, another mass shooting in the United States, even at a Super Bowl victory party, isn’t what it used to be. We’ve all become so inured to gun violence that we quickly register it and move on. At the same time, the media, whose bottom line is measured in the currency of eyeballs, has likely concluded that mass shootings just don’t capture our interest in the way they used to. They’ve become commonplace: They’re private tragedies to those involved, but to the rest of the public, they’re a car crash before we speed on. Worth a few seconds, but not much more.

The gun rights fantasy of danger is transformed into a reality of danger for everyone else.

The normalization of mass shootings is part of what struck me about the media report I did finally catch. Of all places, it was on the TV show Inside Edition. the sort of hybrid tabloid newspaper, entertainment magazine, and true crime show that was initially popularized by pre-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. But Inside Edition wasn’t doing a segment on the shooting or its aftermath; instead, they were doing a segment on whether it was still “safe” to go to public events like the Super Bowl victory parade.

To ask this question, they spoke to an “expert” who made suggestions about the type of clothing and shoes we should wear at such public events (hint: no flip-flops, but only tightly tied shoes you can run in). This segment reminded me of the industry that emerged to protect ourselves and our children from the epidemic of mass shootings, absent the political will to ban guns. So, we keep our Second Amendment “freedoms,” and simply send our children to school with bulletproof backpacks. It’s the American way.

This entire problem is obviously the sign of a deeply damaged society. But what caught my attention this time was the public nature of the problem. As Inside Edition understood, however obtusely, the question at hand was less about mass shootings per se, and more about our physical safety in the public sphere. As they astutely asked, is it safe to go out in public anymore?

Defenders of gun rights often defend them on the grounds of public safety: The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. This argument is pure bunk—and worse yet, dangerous bunk—but it at least hints at the underlying problem of public safety. In order to live any semblance of a life, a prerequisite is that we feel physically safe. You might be able to survive in a war zone, but its impossible to have anything approximating a good life in one.

The public safety argument for gun rights therefore bases itself on a real need that we have. Unfortunately, it does so disingenuously, because its solution to feelings of insecurity is to make the public sphere more dangerous. As a consequence of this feeling of insecurity (which has much more to do with feelings of white fragility than with anything else), the public sphere is made infinitely more dangerous, so that the rest of us have to contend with the actuality of a danger that for the gun rights advocate is a mere fantasy. In other words, the gun rights fantasy of danger is transformed into a reality of danger for everyone else.

The violence that defines American public life has been growing for decades. Although, for many of the more marginalized members of our society this has long been true, so that what we’re really experiencing is that the danger once felt by these groups is being extended to us all. And this process shows no signs of abating.

This brings me to what really caught my eye about the Inside Edition story. While we have become inured to the violence of mass shootings, there is another form of public violence that we’ve become even blinder to: Covid-19. Sorry to mention the elephant in the room, because I know it’s the last thing anyone wants to hear, but the likelihood of death or severe illness from Covid-19 remains much higher than being the victim of a mass shooting.

Rather than universal masking and an investment in air purification—a simple twofold solution that would bring an actual semblance of normalcy back to our lives—we’ve been told that we’re on our own.

For instance, in 2021 (the last year for which there was data), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there were 48,830 gun deaths. Of those, more than half were suicides, while the rest were murders. As for mass shootings, the CDC also reports that there were 103 fatalities from mass shootings in 2021.

I’m not trying to make light of mass shootings or gun deaths, but compared to many other causes of death, let alone Covid-19, it doesn’t seem like much. For instance, during the same year of 2021, the CDC reports an almost tenfold death rate of 460,000 people from Covid-19, and there are good reasons to believe that this is an undercount, and possibly a quite significant one. Granted, this number decreased in 2022, but it still ran to a whopping 244,000. I haven’t been able to find data for 2023 yet, and presumably it was lower than 2022, but it’s certainly much higher than total gun deaths—and many multiples times higher than deaths in mass shootings.

Many point to the decreasing rates of Covid-19 fatalities as a sign that the pandemic is nearing the end. And the decreasing rate of Covid-19 deaths is in no small part due to the success of vaccines. However, the mass fatalities of the old and vulnerable during the earlier parts of the pandemic is also playing a role. Kill off your most vulnerable (such as by having dangerously lax policies at nursing homes), and your death rates will eventually go down when these vulnerable populations are already dead. However, the ongoing problem with Covid-19 has less to do with death rates than it does with the problem of long Covid-19 and post-Covid symptoms.

There have been varying studies to date, but it seems like somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20% of all Covid-19 cases lead to long Covid or other post-Covid symptoms. This is a staggering rate for what often amounts to permanent neurological, cardiovascular, or cognitive damage. What we’re talking about is that with every case of Covid-19, there is anywhere from a 1 in 10 to a 1 in 5 chance of developing permanent physical damage to our most vital organs.

In fact, we’re already seeing some of the consequences of this: One study found a 30% increase in heart attacks within the 25-44 demographic during the early years of the pandemic. And this is only the beginning. However, the consequences of damage from Covid-19 are often unknown for years or even decades, so we won’t see the real consequences for a long time. For instance, for children contracting Covid-19 today, we likely won’t know if their cardiovascular system was damaged until they’re in their 30s and they have a heart attack. And the same is true for many of the other forms of post-Covid damage.

What this means is that it is only a matter of time before we each know someone with a chronic and possibly fatal condition attributed to Covid-19, just as it’s only a matter of time before we become this someone. For instance, the spikes in heart attacks that we’re already seeing are the consequence of Covid-19 circulating for only a few short years, but what will those rates look like after it’s been circulating for decades, and rather than one or two infections, we’ve each been reinfected dozens of times? The picture gets bleak fast.

If our society had any true sense of community, our sense of care for those around us would lead us to institute public health policies in which we would all be safe.

Opposed to the immediacy of gun violence, the violence of unchecked Covid-19 spread unfolds along a much longer timeline. And this elongated timeline—coupled with a complete failure of our political and media institutions—makes it seem to many that the pandemic is over. For these people, the pandemic is over... until it isn’t. When that happens, rather than facing a virus that we can try to avoid for fear of the damage is might do, we’ll be confronting a virus that we can no longer avoid because of the damage it has already done.

As a consequence of Covid-19, public space has become a much more dangerous place. And, as with gun violence, the solution to this public problem has been privatized. Rather than universal masking and an investment in air purification—a simple twofold solution that would bring an actual semblance of normalcy back to our lives—we’ve been told that we’re on our own. If you feel at risk, then you’re welcome to do your best to avoid public spaces and to mask when you can’t. As for the public space itself, nothing is going to be done. Just as bullets fly, so too viral particles.

The United States is a deeply broken nation. The very baseline for any kind of society is the ability to feel safe from physical harm. Without this rudimentary public good, we can’t possibly hope to have any other social good, as constant fear erodes the foundation of trust on which society lies. For whatever sense of safety some might have felt in the United States at one point in time, it seems clear that this country is intent on destroying any last vestiges of its existence. The public sphere is evermore a place about which we each need to ask the question from Inside Edition: is it safe to go out into public?

The story of privatization has become commonplace. Following an expansion of public goods that began with the New Deal, the conservative movement fought back, eventually reversing the trajectory with former President Ronald Reagan (if not before). Typically, this story is a story of how our public spaces are disappearing as physical spaces: public parks replaced by “privately owned public spaces,” and town squares replaced by shopping malls. But an untold corollary of this story is the way that our shared spaces transform as a consequence of privatization.

In place of the sense of community that transforms shared spaces into public spaces, we find an increasingly dangerous place. We can see this with gun crimes: While many people continue to feel the social bonds that lead them to try to ban guns for the collective good, many others act on their sense of anti-social individuality that places their own private security above the safety of us all. These people might be physically located in shared spaces, but they don’t belong to the public.

The same is true of Covid-19. If our society had any true sense of community, our sense of care for those around us would lead us to institute public health policies in which we would all be safe. But absent this sense of community, what we’re left with are languages of choice that trade in security, but that can never provide it. Individuals can choose to stay home or to wear N95s when they go out, but this choice isn’t very far from the choice of buying a gun for personal security. Granted, wearing a mask doesn’t put others at harm, but in it’s ability to provide actual safety, the protection an N95 provides is minimal. And in both cases, the one choice that none of us has is to the choice to live in a truly safe society.

As the public sphere dies and collective spaces become evermore dangerous, when we do die as a consequence of going out in public, this death is ultimately a private one. It is not the death of a fellow citizen, someone to whom we should feel a sense of kinship and responsibility. It’s the death of another atomized individual, as isolated and alone as everyone else, with a life foreshortened by our inability to care for one another.

It's just another private death in a public place.

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