We Haven’t Properly Mourned the 100,000 Lives Taken by Covid-19

Americans would take the Coronavirus more seriously if they saw the true impact of the disease on those who suffer most

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog

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Lily Sage Weinrieb photographs the remains of a Covid-19 victim for a virtual viewing before cremation on May 22, 2020 in New York City. Lily is in residency as a funeral director at International Hamilton Heights Funeral Home in Harlem. Before the pandemic, the home averaged 30–40 clients per month. Now, that number has quadrupled. Between transferring remains from hospitals, viewings, paperwork, embalmments, crematorium and cemetery runs, Lily works from 8am to midnight. She often sleeps on a couch in the funeral chapel. She is completely overwhelmed scheduling funerals for a month in advance and not able to do many aspects of her job like being able to console grieving relatives with a hug nor a touch and limiting numbers at viewing and burials. Despite these impediments, Lily attempts to find solutions such as video viewings and other ceremonies. Photo by Misha Friedman/Getty Images.

100,000 people have died from Covid-related causes. These deaths have occurred largely alone. They have been without notice, discounted, under-counted, preventable, and not properly mourned.

When my dad passed away in 2003 I stood next to his bed and held his hand. I will remember the feeling of his hand in mine the rest of my life — my eyes are red and hot that for the many people who couldn’t say goodbye to loved ones in-person. Were it not for the nurses, doctors, and therapists holding an iPad, these losses have been unseen. They are here to heal us and they have had to act as our witness.

Three million Americans live in nursing homes, 40,000 or so of them have died. One of them at least is someone I know. His kids received a phone call across the country with the news.

I talked with Rachel Maddow about this a few weeks ago. The lack of accountability. Of visibility. Of a plan. She pushed this into people’s consciousness. And still people die by the dozen. Americans are being buried without funerals, sometimes in mass graves. Sometimes with a few loved ones. Sometimes on Zoom. Often unidentified by their loved ones.

Americans are taking every opportunity they can to mourn and there’s a hole. Often someone will discount these losses as Trump did today with his “the number” is “only going to be 100,000”. In those moments, the victims of this disease are unseen.

100,000 people lost and I can count on one hand the number of scenes from hospitals, funerals or nursing homes shown on TV and seared into our memories. We need to bear better witness. There have been no scenes like 9/11. I talked about this with NJ Governor Phil Murphy. He flew the flags at half-staff. Not because the president ordered it. He flew them at half staff because doing so would create a public discussion.

A CNBC host today criticized the scientists for making too much of Covid-19 and hurting the economy (his stocks). That’s the party line. They’re only people. Since you can’t say that, the acceptable way you dress it up is by saying how many more people are dying for other things than Covid-19. A lot of new people suddenly care about deaths by suicide and overdose. If it had a hope of lasting, this would be a great thing. Sadly I fear people are throwing numbers around about people they won’t help. Extremely false numbers.

Deaths from Covid-19 are also under-counted. Unless someone has tested positive or are in the hospital, they are not counted. And now a number of states have decided that if you die from Covid-19 but have another condition, you died from that other condition. Have skin cancer? You didn’t die from Covid. Have diabetes? You didn’t die from Covid. These are games.

But wait! The argument gets flipped on its head; “These must be ‘lock down’ deaths.” Excess suicides and heart attacks and overdoses as a result of the lock down. There are even websites (with no sources or comparators) with respectable sounding names that show the data. I’m going to say this right here. There has been incredible trauma from Covid-19. There have undoubtedly been deaths of despair. And anxiety. And depression. And more addiction. No question. These deaths are an impact of this pandemic. But not the lockdown. The lockdown saved more lives than it cost. This was clear in 1918. And the 20,000 lives saved in May alone will be five to six times the number of people lost for other reasons.

If the idea were to value all the lives lost equally, I would be the happiest man on earth. We would handle the public health crisis of mental health and addiction AND the pandemic. But instead I’m afraid it’s only to discount the lives of those lost during the pandemic.

Finally, as every family member who has lost someone knows, so many of these deaths were preventable:

  • ~40k preventable deaths if Trump had not eliminated nursing home regs
  • ~35k preventable deaths if we had not denied this problem and acted just one week earlier
  • preventable deaths if we had proper PPE for health care workforce
  • preventable deaths if we had early testing — creating containment instead of community spread

It is not all one person’s fault. I blame these losses on the disease. We can hold our leaders accountable as we choose. Blame and hatred will do us no good. While more people will be lost, I am confident we can save many lives if we do the right things; value all lives, #OpenSafely, and give our scientists time.

Some time soon we will properly mourn. Until then I feel like I’m carrying an unpaid debt. I will admit to you that like many it has been hard for me to sleep. That I can never do enough. I don’t know how to honor these people but some day these names will all go up on a plaque on the National Mall and I want to be there the day it opens holding hands with whoever is next to me.

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