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YVONNE ABRAHAM

A million COVID deaths, and the chasms they left behind

Here we are, at yet another grim, formerly unimaginable milestone, even as many Americans are determined to get back to normal

Staff at work on a COVID-19 ward at Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York, March 23, 2020.VICTOR J. BLUE/NYT

Todd Weeks was driving two acquaintances to the airport recently when talk turned to the pandemic.

“They said COVID isn’t even real, that they didn’t know anyone who has died,” said Weeks, 47, of Fitchburg.

“I’m sorry that it is real,” he recalled telling them. “My brother just passed away.”

We arrive this week at the latest in a lengthy succession of grim, formerly unimaginable milestones since the COVID pandemic began just over two years ago. The official count of COVID deaths in this country is on the brink of 1 million, though the true number is almost certainly higher.

That is 1 million souls snatched up by a virus too many refused to believe in or take seriously, as if its existence were a matter of faith and not scientific fact; by a disease used as a wedge to divide us, when it should have been acknowledged as a generational crisis and brought us together; by a pandemic that dragged on long enough to exhaust our attention spans, our capacity for pain, our willingness to endure inconvenience for the sake of others; by one that continues killing hundreds of Americans each week regardless, marooning their loved ones on islands of grief in oceans of stubborn normalcy.

It is 1 million chasms opened up in the lives of people trying to go on without brothers, mothers, friends, daughters, husbands.

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How do you grieve when so many refuse, or can no longer bear, to fully acknowledge what caused your pain? When so many have moved on?

Weeks is mystified by the denial, but he understands the exhaustion.

His brother Thomas was vigilant for so long. An avid hunter, hobby farmer, devoted father of five, and cancer survivor, Tom, 49, knew COVID could make him seriously ill, despite his vaccinations. The former trucker had been in a serious accident almost 20 years ago, and had made it through months of hospitalization and rehab, but it left his body weakened. When he was getting chemotherapy a couple of years ago, Tom isolated at the rectory at his Catholic church so as not to risk infection.

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When another wave hit last Fall, Todd believed his brother “really needed to be in a bubble again,” he said. “But I guess we were so over it, after two years, people were saying ‘We’re going to be safe, but we’re still going to live, laugh, love.’”

Tom had a volunteer job driving a van for local seniors, and he wouldn’t dream of letting them down, despite Todd’s concern. He contracted COVID in December, and died on Jan. 23.

“If I could just have put him in a bubble for those two months, when it was everywhere,” Todd said. “It felt like, after his funeral, [the country] moved into no masks and resuming normal life. You don’t hear much about COVID, and you don’t go to the grocery store anymore feeling like it’s everywhere.”

That pains Erica Zaim, whose mother and best friend, Ingrid Bayliss, 74, died of COVID on Jan. 9. Bayliss worked hard in the family funeral business, but she also found time to help out when her girls were growing up, an eager volunteer for classroom craft projects, field trips, and Girl Scouts. Bayliss loved casinos, knitting, and especially her Scottie, MacDuff.

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She got very sick with a respiratory illness when COVID first hit (Zaim said her mother was never tested for the virus) and was in and out of the hospital for the next two years. Her daughter, who lives in Tyngsboro, quit her marketing job at the start of the pandemic so she could safely care for her mother, seeing her almost every day. Zaim says her mother contracted COVID during another hospital stay in early January, and “her body wasn’t strong enough” to fight it off.

“It was just horrible,” she said. “All we did to try to keep her healthy, and for her to catch it in the hospital was just awful.”

Losing someone to COVID is isolating enough, the pandemic making proper funerals and hugs from fellow loved ones more difficult. But Zaim’s sense of isolation has been made worse by the fact that so many seem to act as if the threat has passed. She sees the eagerness with which people have abandoned masks, even in crowds, and wonders why people are unwilling to do such a simple thing to protect themselves, and others. More upsetting, she knows people who still refuse to get vaccinated.

“I mean, 1 million people,” she said. “I don’t know what it takes to open somebody’s eyes. They see it as a political issue, but it’s a moral issue. You want to say to them, ‘Look at me, this is horrible, this is something I don’t want you to go through, your mom to go through.’”

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No one expects the same isolating vigilance we managed two years ago, when we were flying blind and had no vaccines. But the speed with which this country seems to have left behind the pandemic’s losses, and its lessons, has been staggering. Among the million lost are hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented if only this country had been better prepared, and its response led by science and not by politics. But here we are again, watching to see if a divided Congress will pass a COVID relief package that is already insufficient to prevent the next catastrophe.

Desire James Arsene Versailles remembers seeing footage of airline passengers cheering as they pulled off their masks mid-flight a few weeks ago, as if the pandemic is just a joke to some people.

“It isn’t anything to laugh about,” he said. “It’s just gut-wrenching to see.”

Arsene Versailles lost his mother, Florcie, 78, in May of 2020. The Haitian immigrant was a fierce housing advocate in Boston, a volunteer at homeless shelters, a cashier at Filene’s, and a proud single mother. After years of declining health, she contracted COVID at her nursing home, where Arsene Versailles was barely able to visit because of lockdowns. He worries the racial disparities in the health care system, disparities laid bare by the pandemic, hastened his mother’s decline. And he is pained that this country seems so reluctant to reckon with the inequality COVID made impossible to ignore, or even to properly memorialize those lost.

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“Our losses have been politicized and debated,” he said. “It’s just insulting to see politicians doing photo ops and not taking it seriously.”

He belongs to a group called Marked By COVID, which is pushing for permanent memorials to those lost, including a national COVID day of remembrance.

“The world wants to move on and return to normal, but there will never be a normal for me and my family and all the others marked by COVID,” he said. “I worry everything that happened is going to get swept under the rug and forgotten about.”

His mother always used to say every life is precious, but Arsene Versailles says that when it comes to COVID, “we are pretending the person’s life never existed.”

Florcie Yves Chavannes Versailles existed, as did the million others taken from us. Leaving them behind hurts not just those grieving their deaths, but all of us.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.