Virus Outbreak Washington

Hundreds of empty chairs representing a fraction of the more than 220,000 lives lost due to COVID-19 are seen during the National COVID-19 Remembrance at The Ellipse outside of the White House on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Washington.

While Americans aren’t blind to the fact that heart disease and cancer, the leading causes of death in America, combine to kill more than 1 million people every year, we have come to understand that reducing that number will take time.

Those deaths don’t bother us so much because the diseases are not communicable: You can’t catch melanoma from someone in your social circle.

The same cannot be said of COVID-19, a highly contagious disease that has killed nearly a quarter of a million people in less than nine months. For lots of folks, especially older Americans, coronavirus represents a threat to health and safety, and nothing motivates people like the fear of imminent death.

In two days, when Americans go to the polls to choose the men and women they want to run this country, mortal fear will influence many votes.

According to 2019 federal census estimates, people 60 and older make up nearly 30% of the electorate, and members of that powerful voting bloc are much more likely to catch and die from the coronavirus than younger voters.

For many senior citizens, and those who love them, this election represents a referendum on the ability of the politicians currently in charge to effectively address and control COVID-19.

So how do Jack and Jill Taxpayer decide whether our leaders have done a good job fighting this disease? They could investigate how other governments have handled the pandemic.

Try an apples-to-apples comparison with a country that looks a lot like ours. Take Germany, for example.

In Germany, a democratic republic, citizens enjoy the same personal autonomy as Americans. Driven by the impulses of free market capitalism, Germany, like America, considers itself an innovator in business and a leader on the global political stage.

Germany’s population of 83 million is one-quarter that of the United States, and so far about 10,000 German citizens have died from COVID-19.

If the United States were managing the pandemic as effectively as its Western peer, we could reasonably expect its coronavirus death toll to be, proportionally, about four times greater, or 40,000 people. But more than 225,000 Americans have died from the virus, a difference of 185,000 people.

That number, 185,000, is hard to picture, but if you add up the population of the cities of Lancaster, Harrisburg, York and Lebanon, then throw in all of Manheim Borough, you’re just about there. That’s how many people would still be alive if the United States were managing the pandemic as effectively as Germany. Put another way, that’s how many people are dead because we have not done so.

Those metrics suggest a couple of possibilities: Either coronavirus-related mortality in America is inherently beyond the control of our leaders in Washington, or the pandemic has been grossly mismanaged.

Voters must decide for themselves which is true.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of the federal government is to provide security for every American. Elected officials are charged with protecting us from threats outside and inside our borders.

COVID-19 ranks among the greatest internal threats this country has ever seen, and many Americans today do not feel secure. Death and the threat of death occupy a growing space in the American consciousness, and in this newspaper.

Every day we run an updated tally of how many people have died from COVID-19.

So as you complete your mail-in ballot or head out to the polls, vote as if your life depends on it, because it just might.

Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to mlong@lnpnews.com.