The Things COVID has Taken From Us
Sometimes it’s not about the numbers.
Recently I received some unfortunate news that has left me in a bit of a melancholic state.
I found out that a close friend’s family member was not in the best mental state, and may need some care.
But more recently, I found out that an ex-coworker suddenly passed a few days ago. He only worked there for a few months, and was part of the new crew of COVID testers, so I didn’t know him for very long or very well.
It was shocking to hear of his passing, considering that he was so young and seemed relatively healthy. But being analytical, I kept thinking about how he could have died so suddenly, and those thoughts continuously crowded my mind.
Only a few hours ago I was shown his obituary which included a picture of him. and that’s when I got hit with a sudden realization: I don’t think I ever saw his face without a mask. The picture in the obituary had a familiarity; I could tell his hair and a bit of his facial features (although some of it was covered with a helmet), but I couldn’t remember his face looking the way it did in the picture, because I couldn’t remember ever seeing his face without a mask on.
I keep trying to remember if I’ve ever seen his face maskless (my memory isn’t the greatest), and being shown another picture of him elicited some more familiarity, but the faces of the other coworkers (ones that I have seen maskless in break rooms or around the lab) were obvious to me, and so I keep questioning whether I have ever actually seen his face without any obstruction.
And it was from this realization that a wave of melancholy began to come over me. Someone I worked with for months, who I helped train, had suddenly passed away, and the first time I saw his entire face was when I saw his picture in his obituary.
Throughout the pandemic the sole focus has revolved around the numbers. It was always about the number of cases, the number of deaths, and flattening the curve.
Now that vaccines have been rolled out it’s become all about the number of vaccinated and unvaccinated. All we have ever had hammered into our skulls this entire pandemic were the numbers.
But as we are all beginning to learn, the most important things in life can never be quantified.
Last year when lockdowns began being implemented, nursing homes became the center for the strictest lockdown measures because they were the epicenter of many breakouts. What went underreported was the story of a nursing home in Colorado, where residents stood outside of the home with signs saying “we would rather die from COVID than die from loneliness.” In such a world as was the beginning of the pandemic, there was no room for the idea of loneliness, just the number of elderly people dying, with loneliness being damned.
And it was a trend that continued. When students first began at-home learning, concerns were raised about domestic violence, the mental health of children, and possible learning disabilities that would not be detected because teachers would not be able to catch abnormalities from a lack of in-person teaching. Once again it was about the numbers, and keeping the number of COVID cases and deaths down at the expense of forcing kids to stay at home.
And the trend still continued. When outcries of undiagnosed cancers, missed treatments, loss of small businesses and an obliterated economy was raised, these concerns still fell on deaf ears; it was still about cases, hospitalizations, and death.
Throughout 2020 I had what I would consider a slow awakening, a “red-pilling” of some sort that indicated that everything we were doing did not make sense. In fact, the moment that fully woke me up was Halloween last year when the only person to go trick-or-treating in my neighborhood was a toddler (of course, along with his parents). We didn’t have any candy (our county banned trick-or-treating), but we had decorations, which most likely was seen as an invitation to the possibility of candy.
But we had no candy, because our county forbid it and we were compliant actors who were too concerned about COVID instead of thinking about the missed experience of what it is to go trick-or-treating for the first time. And so the toddler, along with his parents, walked along the sidewalk, most likely not finding any candy at any other houses -they too, would be compliant to the rules.
It was one of the experiences that finally woke me up. I kept thinking about how the toddler, now old enough to likely remember his first trick-or-treating, finding out that his first experience was of people too scared to pass out candy to children, and that he would return home with nothing but disappointment.
It made me aware of all of the lost opportunities for children this past year and a half, and it made me amazed at the sacrifices children had to make on account of adults and their persistent paranoia. Any time a concern about children was brought up, the response I always got was that children were resilient.
Yes, children are resilient-evolutionary biology has helped ensure of that- but that resilience isn’t all-encompassing. A child is resilient in that a broken arm or ankle usually results in a speedy recovery without long lasting ramifications, but not so resilient that constant head injuries are something to be unconcerned about.
And it’s that lack of concern that we have been living with for many months now. The lockdowns have not been good to children; they need socialization, free-play and constant interactions in order to form their basic understandings of the world. For many children early childhood serves as pivotal formative years for understanding how to operate with others, and especially how to empathize.
Yes, empathy, something that we expect children to learn and yet have learned to not expect and express throughout this pandemic. It’s within its own right a pandemic in and of itself, one that we continue to miss when we play a numbers only game, for there is no empathy in numbers.
Make no mistake, the number of hospitalizations and deaths that COVID has wrought is nothing short of horrendous, but we can’t delude ourselves into believing that concerns with numbers is emblematic of being empathetic.
Because you don’t need numbers to understand the damage that loneliness causes, you don’t need numbers to tell you that your child is acting up from anxiety and lack of socialization, you don’t need numbers to tell you to be a compassionate, understanding human being. What you need, instead, is empathy.
We all seemed to have lost an ability to empathize, and certainly the circumstances of politics and the media have not helped assuage our lack of empathy. It feels as if we have become ever more hostile, ever more pugnacious to those we have been told are our enemies over the course of the pandemic.
And now that we are arguing that our civil liberties are being locked away by our adversaries, we will continue to see more anger, more resentment, more hatred, and even less empathy.
So as we continue to argue over the number of deaths and hospitalizations, let’s not forget to argue about those things that we can’t codify on paper.
Let’s not forget about all of the lost childhood moments, or the loss of close interactions, or the intimate moments we could have shared with loved ones. And most importantly, let’s not forget about all of the memories that we never got to have, and the empathy that we used to share with our fellow humans.
Even as of writing this I keep wondering if I have seen my coworker’s face. Maybe there was a time that he literally let the mask slip, and I just can’t remember that quick glance at seeing his face in its entirety. It’s a shame that something so ingrained in humans, something as second nature as recognizing and understanding faces, was stolen from many of us, because it feels as if there was a memory that I was not allowed to have, and a way of remembering that never fully formed.
So even as we continue to hope that the pandemic will reach its nadir, and will hopefully one day become a thing of distant memory, let us not allow our empathy to fade along with the virus.
And when we do reach that point, we will still be left with each other, and if we are also left with the inability to empathize and form memories, could we really consider the pandemic to be fully over?