Graphic via COURIER
Graphic via COURIER

On Tuesday, the United States recorded at least 200,000 American deaths related to the coronavirus. Critics of the US pandemic response say it didn’t have to be this way.

The number of Americans lost to COVID-19 in just six months is staggering. Get COURIER’s full coverage on crossing this threshold here.

More than 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. For a nation that has long prided itself on the idea of “American exceptionalism” and being an international leader in science and health care, the milestone represents a once-unthinkable level of tragedy. It also underscores the grim reality that by almost any metric, the United States has had one of the worst coronavirus responses of any advanced country in the world.

The US, which accounts for less than 5% of the world population, leads the world in both confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19, representing more than 20% of global infections and deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

The official death toll from COVID-19 is already more than 67 times the number of Americans who died during 9/11 and more than three times the number of Americans lost during the entire Vietnam War. And it will continue to rise. One recent estimate from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicted that the US death toll would double by the end of the year, reaching 410,000 deaths. 

That would represent the loss of more people in one year than the number of people who live in Tulsa, Oklahoma; New Orleans, Louisiana; or Tampa, Florida. 

Even if the 2020 death toll falls far short of that estimate, many more Americans will lose their lives to COVID-19, while others will fall seriously ill and potentially develop long-lasting medical conditions.

But it didn’t have to be this way. The deaths of 200,000 Americans were not pre-ordained. Instead, they were the result of choices made by the US government.

“I think that with very rare exceptions, there is a case to be made [that] almost every single one of these deaths [was] preventable,” said Alex Goldstein, a 36-year-old Massachusetts resident who launched the Faces of COVID project to commemorate those who’ve died from the virus.

Isabelle Papadimitriou, a 64-year-old respiratory therapist in Dallas, Texas, was one of those people. She contracted the virus from a patient, and died on July 4. Just weeks earlier, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had rushed to lift public health restrictions in May, which ultimately led to a summer-long surge of coronavirus cases. 

Papadimitriou’s daughter Fiana Tulip blames President Donald Trump for failing to get the virus under control. “I know that her death was preventable, and I know that there was a way that she could have lived, and that’s with the right leadership.”

Rather than spearhead a coordinated federal response over the past six months, Trump and his administration have, among other things:

  • admitted that they knew the coronavirus was dangerous and “more deadly than even your strenuous flu” before the first confirmed death in the US; 
  • admitted to repeatedly downplaying the virus in public while acknowledging its severity in private. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic”;
  • decided against a national testing strategy and instead passed the buck on testing to the states, forcing governors to take extreme measures to source tests without the help of the federal government;
  • called the federal government a “backup” and lashed out at states for their requests for personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses and doctors, resulting in supply shortages that put the lives of healthcare workers at risk. Instead of offering federal resources, Trump told governors they were on their own;
  • repeatedly interfered with states’ efforts to obtain supplies and tests, and in some cases, seized them altogether;
  • ignored public health experts’ advice on lifting restrictions too early and instead encouraged states to reopen to try to save the faltering economy, leading to a surge of new cases in much of the country that ultimately hindered economic growth and led to thousands of additional deaths;
  • mocked the idea of wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, even as substantial evidence emerged of its effectiveness in reducing transmission of the virus;
  • admitted to ordering the slowdown of coronavirus testing because Trump didn’t want new cases identified.

George Washington III, who lost his 81-year-old father George Washington Jr. to COVID-19 in June, said the federal response represented an “enormous failure” of leadership. 

George Washington Jr. and wife Shirley
Image via George Washington III

“The federal government has given up that leadership and asked individual states and cities to manage those things without the resources that the federal government can muster and it’s a failure,” he said. “We have 1,000 people dying a day because of a disorganized federal response. There is a reason this happens. It happens when the people on top are more concerned about their own issues than handling the people’s business.”

Goldstein was more blunt in his assessment of the federal government’s response. “This administration has so dramatically mismanaged this from start to finish that there is genuinely, objectively, blood on their hands for what has happened,” he said. “What would have happened if we took the advice of medical professionals sooner? What would have happened if we didn’t totally mismanage the supply chain around PPE and equipment? What would have happened if we didn’t flood the airwaves and social media with misinformation for months and months and months, leading people to different conclusions about the right thing to do?”

RELATED: Remembering George Washington Jr.: A Man With the Voice of a Giant

The what-ifs are endless. Tulip believes the Trump administration’s failure to prioritize fighting the virus and demonstrate leadership represents a lack of empathy and respect for human life.

“That’s not the country I want to be a part of, that’s not the country I want to live in, that’s not the leadership I want to save us,” Tulip said. “They’re not trying to save us and it’s been very frustrating to see how they’re handling it.”

This type of leadership has consequences, down to the individual level. 

“People follow leaders,” said Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father Mark Urquiza—who had recently received a clean bill of health from his doctor—to COVID-19 in June. “People follow the leadership, and as long as Trump is holding super spreader events at the White House, as long as he’s not wearing a mask and continuing to not really talk about this virus, they’re following that.”

The Republican Governors Who Echoed Trump 

In addition to criticizing the federal response to the pandemic, Urquiza also holds Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey responsible for her father’s death. The 65-year-old took his cues from Ducey and Trump, she explained, and both said it was safe to resume normal activities.

In late May, as Arizona documented an uptick in coronavirus cases, Ducey told the public: “I want to encourage people to get out and about, to take a loved one to dinner, to go retail shopping. If you don’t have an underlying health condition, it’s safe out there.” 

It wasn’t safe. Six weeks after Arizona lifted its restrictions, it became home to the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. To this day, Ducey has refused to enact a statewide mask mandate. He even made it impossible for local leaders to enact their own requirements until mid-June. 

The governor failed to protect his constituents, Urquiza said, including her father. 

Mark Urquiza and his daughter Kristin
Image via Kristin Urquiza

Tulip, Papadimitriou’s daughter, also took Texas Gov. Abbott to task for his “craven” and “disrespectful” pandemic response. 

“I wish he had more of a heart and I wish he took this more seriously,” Tulip said. “I wish he just did his job and saved his state, because he is not doing that.”

Texas didn’t institute a stay-at-home order until April 2, and Abbott lifted the order at the end of the month, allowing certain businesses and public spaces to reopen against the advice of health officials. The governor also refused to enact a mask mandate in May and June, and even went so far as to prevent local leaders from implementing their own policies. Like Ducey, Abbott eventually gave into public pressure and reversed course, allowing local officials to implement their own mandates. 

But it wasn’t until July 2 that the governor himself ordered a statewide mask mandate to fight COVID-19. By dithering on instituting a mandate, Abbott—and to a larger degree, Trump—paved the way for a right-wing rebellion against masks, which have been proven to be extremely effective in reducing transmission of the virus.

That people were—and still are—protesting mask mandates by claiming they infringed on their rights angered Tulip. Still, she wanted to give Abbott the opportunity to explain himself or at least express condolences for her loss, so she publicly invited him to her mother’s burial. 

She never heard back from the governor or his office. 

“I at least expected some sort of packaged response, you know: ‘We received your letter, our deepest condolences,’ [but] not a single thing,” Tulip said. “He never once acknowledged us and still has not.”

It hurt even more, she said, because people of color, like Papadimitriou, who was of Mexican descent, are “the ones who are suffering the most in Texas.” 

“It feels like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t have them in mind,” Tulip said.

RELATED: Remembering Isabelle Papadimitriou: ‘She Was a Very Proud Grandmother’

Black and Latino Americans—in Texas and across the country—have made up a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, owing to systemic inequities that make it more difficult for them to obtain health care, leave them working “essential” jobs that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus, and make them more likely than white Americans to live in poverty. 

Eighty percent of Urquiza’s father’s neighborhood of Tolleson, Arizona, is Latino, according to the US Census Bureau. The community, which saw large caseloads in June and July, remains a hotspot for COVID-19 to this day.

“It’s not because the pandemic disproportionately on its own likes the genetic makeup of Latinos. This is the legacy of systemic downplaying and racism amongst our society rearing its head in the face of a pandemic,” Urquiza said. “These are the people who don’t have the privilege to Netflix and chill. These are the folks who if they don’t go to work, they can’t pay rent and if you can’t pay rent, you’re going to be on the street. We need to do so much more to address this head on and to protect my community that is disproportionately shouldering the brunt of this.”

Speaking Out to Save Others

The virus’ devastating impact on Urquiza personally, as well as the Latino community as a whole, is what has prompted her to speak out in the wake of her father’s death. “In addition to being really overwhelmed with my own personal loss, I just kept thinking about ‘If I don’t speak up for my community, who will?’” 

RELATED: Remembering Mark Anthony Urquiza: ‘His Smile Just Lit Up the Entire Room’

Over the past three months, Urquiza has become a public-facing advocate, giving interview after interview and even appearing at the virtual Democratic National Convention to ensure her father didn’t die in vain. Urquiza and her partner, Christine Keeves, also launched Marked by COVID, to ensure that the human aspect of the lives lost wasn’t forgotten and to hold lawmakers accountable for their response to the pandemic. 

“We’re not only personifying and creating a collective movement of folks calling for space for grieving and mourning; we’re also raising important questions about, ‘Did it have to be this way?’ and ‘Does it have to be this way?’” Urquiza said. “And it doesn’t. That’s the truth.”

Tulip has also embraced advocacy as a way to honor her mother. She has harnessed her anger and is on a mission to help people understand the reality of the virus and educate them about the importance of wearing a mask.

Isabelle Papadimitriou
Image via Fiana Tulip

“I feel like I’m doing that to save my mom, but in reality, I’m doing it to save other moms. I’m doing it to save other grandmothers,” Tulip said.

As part of their efforts, Tulip and Urquiza have also been outspoken about the November election, the importance of voting, and their support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“You have to vote. That is the first, most important thing, that you need to vote. And I get it,” Urquiza said. “I have a lot of mixed feelings, I’m tired of politics, I know that Joe Biden and the Democrats are not going to be a panacea to all of our problems. But here’s the thing: The person who’s in the White House right now, Donald Trump, does not care about you.”

In endorsing Biden, Tulip also emphasized just how painful it is for her, as a person of color, to live in Trump’s America.

“I will be voting for Biden and Harris. I cannot do another four more years of this,” she said. “Trump is unfit for the job and he does not put people first. It’s economy first and I want to live in a place where human lives are put as a priority and we don’t have that right now. As far as COVID is concerned, as far as Black lives are concerned, as far as people of color— we don’t matter. We don’t matter and I want to live in a place where I matter.”

READ MORE: ‘Look at the One’: Remembering the Names and Faces of Those Who’ve Died of COVID-19