Thistlethwaite: Inconvenient deaths
We are closing in on 100,000 American deaths from COVID-19. This dreadful statistic must not be regarded as a mere political inconvenience. That perspective undermines the very foundation of any claim that we aspire to be a decent society.
Yet, that is the attitude that Donald Trump and his administration seem to have taken up in their attempt to revise the numbers of American deaths from coronavirus downward and deny the real scope of these terrible losses.
Why do they think they could get away with that?
One reason is that the number of deaths from COVID-19 in this country are distributed by race. Black and brown people are the ones disproportionately dying.
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- In Wisconsin, black people represent 6 percent of the population and nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 fatalities
- In Louisiana, black people make up 32 percent of the state’s population but almost 60 percent of fatalities
- In Kansas, 6 percent of the population is black and yet black people account for more than 30 percent of the COVID-19 deaths
Black and brown people are dying disproportionately because they are disproportionately deemed “essential” such as health care workers, workers in the transportation sector, food store workers and those in meat production. In addition, this disparate death rate comes from systemic inequalities such as inadequate health care, crowded housing and stress which suppresses immunity.
And instead of making the lives of those who are sacrificing for the whole society of the highest concern, there is now an attempt to hide that cost.
That is cruel beyond measure.
During the plagues of the 16th and 17th century, the callous treatment of the infected and the dead, who were disproportionately poor and working class, was said to be “making us cruel as dogs,” as the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote.
Against this attitude of cruelty, the poet and cleric John Donne wrote one of the world’s most famous poems. He told the people of his time that they should not ask “for whom the bell tolls” when it rang to announce another plague death. The bell announcing another death “tolls for thee,” Donne wrote, because anyone’s “death diminishes me” as you and I are involved in humanity.
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We as a nation will not come through the plague of our own time, the coronavirus, as a decent society unless and until the loss of every black and brown life “tolls for thee” regardless of who you are. And yes, the loss of every human life must “toll for thee.”
We have to do what John Donne said. We have to cultivate the idea that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. We are one humanity.
If COVID-19 has anything to teach it is that the health of a whole society depends on the health of each one of its members.
Wearing a mask is the most visible and tangible signal you can send to others that “your life matters to me.” The most common kinds of masks, the cloth ones, don’t protect you as much as they protect others from any virus droplets you might have spread through your mouth or nose.
The fact that Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask signals that he does not care about the lives of others around him. And it makes that kind of moral callousness acceptable.
Wearing a mask is not a weakness, as the president apparently supposes, it is part of the strength we have when we care for one another.
Caring for one another is the practical way out of this pandemic, and especially caring for those deemed “essential workers.” They are at the center for a reason. Thus we must practice social distancing, wear masks, and stay home when we feel ill. These practices along with greatly enhanced testing and social contact tracing will enable us to get through the next years (yes, years) until there is a proven vaccine that is widely distributed.
The scenes of gun-toting guys without masks demanding the end to closures and simple protective actions are, I suppose, designed to pressure governors to “open up the economy.” But how many bus drivers did they infect by not wearing masks on their way to these idiotic demonstrations? Their misguided “freedom” could very well result in someone’s illness or death.
Here’s a hard truth. More death and disease spreading unchecked through our society will not open our economy. That will surely crash it for years to come.
Corpses don’t shop. The dead do not go out to eat in restaurants. Cadavers cannot work. Perhaps you can hide the real numbers of the dead, but it is a lot harder to hide the bodies. People know.
Every death diminishes all of us as one humanity and as one society. When you read about the staggering death toll, remember each one in those numbers is one precious human life that can never be replaced. Each one.
Put on your mask in honor of those who have died and socially distance yourself to keep other losses from happening.
We do need an “opening” in this society.
We need to open our hearts to one another and take the steps that will keep the virus from spreading.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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