How the United States has managed, and mismanaged, our Covid crisis response occupies a lot of attention. Just about every conversation includes some variation of "How are you coping?"
It's the most frequent topic on cable TV. Also, local television news.
Yet I worry that we're ignoring what to me is a vital thing to focus on: the infinite treasure that is life. Which has a flip side: the unbearable sadness of death.
Naturally I look upon this from my own perspective. A 71 year old man. An atheist. Someone who doesn't like the idea of his own inevitable death and has felt the primal fear of non-existence.
But even if you're a young religious believer who is comfortable with dying, I believe we could agree on this. The life each of us is living now is infinitely precious, because it will never come again.
Each moment is a unique one-of-a-kind. It won't ever recur. Once gone, that's it.
For me, human life as a whole has the same quality. I don't believe in life after death. I don't believe in reincarnation. I don't believe in heaven or hell.
What I believe with great confidence is that each of us needs to pay rapt attention to our current life experience, since there is no guarantee that after our last breath we will ever have even a single second of conscious awareness.
From this point of view every death is unbearably sad. It represents a snuffing out of a person's loving and living; their thoughts and emotions; their hopes and fears; their memories and hopes.
I don't see any way to balance the rich plentitude of earthly existence with the stark nothingness of death. The two don't belong in the same equation. There is no common denominator that connects life and death. They inhabit different dimensions of reality.
Still, we all have experienced death. Not our own, obviously. That of others. Friends, loved ones, relatives, strangers. Death surrounds us, though it remains a mystery that no one in the long history of humanity can say, "I've been there and done that."
Near-death experiences are just that, near.
Thus when I hear glib talk from national leaders like President Trump and Vice-President Pence about how even one Covid death is too many, but we should feel grateful that only 132,218 people have died from Covid so far, rather than the two million that supposedly could have died, I want to scream at the TV.
You fucking idiots! You say that one death is too many but you're OK with 132,218. That's insane!
I fear that as the weeks and months go on with the spread of the Covid virus in the United States continuing virtually or entirely unabated, we Americans are getting used to hundreds of people dying every day (the past few days it's been almost a thousand).
I don't ever want to get used to anyone dying needlessly, much less hundreds or thousands. Yes, I realize death comes to everyone, and thousands of people die every day from all causes in the United States.
However, there's something unique about Covid deaths, since they are largely preventable, and we're not preventing them -- unlike many other advanced nations that have gotten their death rates much below ours.
Every day the Oregon Health Authority sends out an email message with the most recent case and death count for my state. They give a bit of humanizing detail to the deaths. Here's the deaths reported today.
Oregon’s 221st COVID-19 death is an 85-year-old woman in Benton County who tested positive on May 31 and died on June 28, at her residence. She had underlying conditions.
Oregon’s 222nd COVID-19 death is a 55-year-old man in Multnomah County who tested positive on June 22 and died on June 28, at his residence. He had underlying medical conditions.
Oregon’s 223rd COVID-19 death is a 91-year-old woman in Marion County who tested positive on June 18 and died on July 5, at her residence. She had underlying medical conditions.
Oregon’s 224th COVID-19 death is a 36-year-old man in Multnomah County who tested positive on June 3 and died on July 7, at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. He had underlying medical conditions.
"Underlying conditions." But they were alive with their underlying conditions before the Covid virus infected them. Each was a living, breathing person. Until they weren't.
Each of these deaths is sad. I don't want to rank order them by their degree of sadness. Still, when I see a 36-year-old person die from Covid, I can't help but feel more of a sense of loss than with the 91-year-old just above him in the list.
One day, hopefully, the Covid crisis will be behind us.
Hopefully we'll be left with an increased sense of compassion for our fellow human beings, and a vow to do our best to never again let a pandemic run roughshod over our country. Or to elect leaders who allow this to happen.