The Human Toll: 100,000 dead in US due to COVID-19

Dan Barry, The New York Times

Posted at May 24 2020 10:07 AM | Updated as of May 24 2020 10:19 AM

The Human Toll: 100,000 dead in US due to COVID-19 1
The front page of the May 24, 2020 edition of The New York Times. The New York Times

One hundred thousand.

Toward the end of May in the year 2020, the number of people in the United States who have died from the coronavirus neared 100,000 — almost all of them within a three-month span. An average of more than 1,100 deaths a day.

One hundred thousand.

A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. A number provides an answer to how many, but it can never convey the individual arcs of life, the 100,000 ways of greeting the morning and saying good night.

One hundred thousand.

The immensity of such a sudden toll taxes our ability to comprehend, to understand that each number adding up to 100,000 represents someone among us just yesterday. Who was the 1,233rd person to die? The 27,587th? The 98,431st?

She may have died in a jam-packed hospital, with no family member at her bedside to whisper a final thank you, Mom, I love you.

He may have died in a locked-down nursing home, his wife peering helplessly through a streaked window as a part of her slips away.

They may have died in subdivided city apartments, too sick or too scared to go to a hospital, their closest relatives a half-world away.

This highly contagious virus has forced us to suppress our nature as social creatures, for fear that we might infect or be infected. Among the many indignities, it has denied us the grace of being present for a loved one’s last moments. Age-old customs that lend meaning to existence have been upended, including the sacred rituals of how we mourn.

Before, we came together in halls and bars and places of worship to remember and honor the dead. We recited prayers or raised glasses or retold familiar stories so funny they left us nodding and crying through our laughter.

In these vital moments of communion, it could feel as though the departed were with us one last time, briefly resurrected by the sheer power of our collective love, to share that closing prayer, that parting glass, that final hug.

Even in the horrible times of wars and hurricanes and terrorist attacks that seemed to crumble the ground beneath our feet, we at least had time-tested ways of grieving that helped us take that first hesitant step forward. Not now.

Now, for most of those who died in the past few months, there were no large gatherings of consolation and recited prayers for peaceful rest. The obituaries that filled our local newspapers and Facebook pages sometimes read like an unending roll call of the coronavirus dead.

Every death notice, virus-related or not, seemed to close with: Due to health concerns and restrictions on gatherings, there will be no funeral services at this time. A celebration of life will be held at a time to be announced.

A virtual memorial service was held instead, perhaps, with mourners praying into laptop screens. Followed by a burial, perhaps, with masked mourners watching from their cars as another coffin was received by the earth.

In a larger sense, the suspension of our familiar rituals of burial or cremation reflected what life in a pandemic has been like. The absence of any clear end.

Even the dead have to wait.

Why has this happened in the United States of 2020? Why has the virus claimed a disproportionately large number of black and Latino victims? Why were nursing homes so devastated? These questions of why and how and whom will be asked for decades to come.

For now, all we can do is hold our collective breath, inch toward some approximation of how things were — and try to process a loss of life greater than what the country incurred in several decades of war, from Vietnam to Iraq.

One hundred thousand.

A threshold number. It is the number celebrated when the family car’s odometer ticks once more to reach six digits. It is the number of residents that can make a place feel fully like a city: San Angelo, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Vacaville, California.

So imagine a city of 100,000 residents that was here for New Year’s Day but has now been wiped from the American map.

One hundred thousand.

Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Manager of the produce department. Tavern owner. Nurse to the end.

Loved baseball. Loved playing euchre. Loved seeing the full moon rise above the ocean.

Man, could she cook.

Always first on the dance floor. Always ready to party. Always gave back.

Preferred bolo ties and suspenders.

Awarded the Bronze Star. Served in the Women’s Army Corps. Survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Competed in the Special Olympics. Immigrated to achieve the American dream.

Could quote Tennyson from memory.

A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition.

One. Hundred. Thousand.