In the early phases of the pandemic, as the coronavirus spread in the United States and doctors and pharmacists and supermarket clerks continued to work and risk infection, some commentators made reference—metaphorical reference, fast and loose and over the top—to ritual human sacrifice. The immediate panicky focus on resuming business as usual in order to keep the stock market from crashing was the equivalent of “those who offered human sacrifices to Moloch,” according to the writer Kitanya Harrison. That first summer, as Republicans settled into their anti-testing, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, nothing-to-worry-about orthodoxy, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said it was “like a policy of mass human sacrifice.” The anthropology professor Shan-Estelle Brown and the researcher Zoe Pearson wrote that people who continued to do their jobs outside their homes were essentially victims of “involuntary human sacrifice, made to look voluntary.” Meanwhile, people on the right likewise compared the inconvenience of closing down public places to ritual sacrifice.
I got in on the analogy too: After Donald Trump’s first big indoor pandemic campaign rally in June 2020, I made a crack on Twitter that for the 6,000 MAGA folks attending it was like a “human sacrifice to please the leader.” And indeed at least once during the month before the rally, Trump played the part of a gung-ho godlike king presiding over the glorious sacrificial deaths of his subjects. When asked, during an Oval Office encounter with the press, whether the nation will “just have to accept the idea that … there will be more deaths” as a result of his open-everything-up-now plan, he said, “I call these people warriors, and I’m actually calling now … the nation, warriors. We have to be warriors.”
“Warriors,” “mass human sacrifice”: These were high-pitched figures of speech studding a debate about our political economy—whether and how governments should intervene to keep people and businesses financially afloat, and how many lives were worth how much of a hit to the economy. Beneath the polemics this discourse was at least fundamentally rational, a weighing of social costs against social benefits.
Today, however, the economy is no longer in jeopardy; unemployment rates and salaries have returned to pre-pandemic levels; GDP per person is higher than it was at the end of 2019; personal savings are growing, and businesses are starting up faster than ever; corporate profits and stock prices are at record highs. And for more than a year, we’ve had astoundingly effective vaccines that radically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. All of which means that for a long time now the right’s ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination, among other public-health protocols, has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose.