Visitors to the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., walk down a slanting sidewalk to view the wall. Each step takes them deeper into the war years, the long lists of names carved into the granite slabs, and the emotions attached to such collective loss.
The names of those who died in the conflict span the years from 1959 to 1975. As of April 20, 2020, there were 58,318 engraved names, according to the National Park Service.
It took 16 years to accumulate that many American deaths in Southeast Asia. That helps put in perspective the current situation we face with the coronavirus. The first COVID-19 death in the U.S. happened on Feb. 29, according to Johns Hopkins University, and on Tuesday, April 28, deaths from the virus surpassed the total of Americans killed in Vietnam. Less than nine weeks.
To view those numbers from another angle, U.S. deaths during the first years of the AIDS epidemic, from 1981-1988, totaled 61,568, according to HIV InSite at the University of California-San Francisco, a number reached by COVID-19 within the same nine weeks.
The tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, claimed 2,996 lives. To look at COVID-19 on a daily basis reveals that in April 2020, we had at least six days with more than 2,000 American deaths each day.
President Donald Trump has declared himself a wartime president in the battle against COVID-19. The connection between war and disease is not new. During the American Civil War, a total of 624,511 soldiers died. Of that number, 224,580 Union troops and 164,000 Confederate soldiers died of disease, according to the ehistory website from Ohio State University.
These comparisons are sobering, even frightening. They are not meant to downplay the deaths from Vietnam, AIDS, or 9/11, but instead should serve to clarify the situation we face today and how it fits into the broader scope of our national history.
Coronavirus is serious. It will demand the best from our scientists, our leaders, our citizens, to stop its spread and guide us through the social, emotional, and financial recovery we face as we move ahead together.