The numbers only tell the beginning of the story.
One hundred and ninety four thousand COVID-19 deaths in the United States.
More than 8,300 deaths in Illinois, and more than 260,000 known infections.
Roughly 22% of the world’s deaths from this virus, in fact, though we make up just 4% of its population.
Those numbers are an invitation to hear the rest of the story.
I interviewed a woman who watched her dad slip away through a glass window in the intensive care unit — unable to hold his hand, unable to whisper goodbye — for 18 days before he died. She lost her mom to cancer in the same ICU three years earlier.
I interviewed a woman whose dad was already not well when the coronavirus arrived here. Frontotemporal dementia had started to rob him of his speech and his ability to live independently. COVID-19 took him quickly — “breathtakingly quickly," she told me. But she’d give anything for one more day with him, one more conversation to soak up his hard-earned wisdom about the civil unrest and push for progress that are unfolding around us. She wishes she had that to lean on.
I interviewed a man, age 30, who spent 44 days in the hospital being treated for COVID-19, only to be released and re-hospitalized four days later with further complications. He developed kidney failure and critical illness polyneuropathy, a neuromuscular complication that saps the strength in the body’s limbs, rendering him a quadriplegic until he could re-learn to sit up and roll over and eventually walk. He has three children.
I interviewed a nurse who lived in fear of leaving her children orphaned. She’s a single mom who attended nursing school to give her two kids a more stable future than her previous hairdressing career could offer. “I can’t imagine these kids going through life without me,” she said. But she had to imagine it when COVID-19 started appearing in a few — and then every one — of her patients.
I interviewed a couple for whom a COVID-19 diagnosis added a layer of complication that’s hard to even fathom; the husband was diagnosed and hospitalized after blacking out at home; the wife is blind and was suddenly left to navigate the next steps alone — whether and where and how to get tested, and the countless questions that would come next.
Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of harrowing, heartbreaking stories unspool behind the statistics. Loved ones dying alone. Their survivors left to grieve without the comfort of end-of-life traditions, of family and friends gathered by their sides. Recoveries that include serious damage to organs and limbs and psyches. Health care workers sacrificing their lives to save others. Grocery clerks and postal workers and teachers lurched abruptly into front-line work.
So when we contemplate the breadth of the damage caused by President Donald Trump’s lies to the American public, we can’t stop at the numbers. We have to also absorb the stories.
When we hear the president tell journalist Bob Woodward that the coronavirus is “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” and "you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed“ and "plenty of young people” become infected; when we learn that he heard and, on some level clearly believed, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien’s warning that the coronavirus would be “the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency;” when we realize that he grasped what was at stake — and freely acknowledged as much on audio — our humanity has to eclipse our politics.
We have to consider, clear-eyed and honestly, the fallout from a president telling Woodward, “this is deadly stuff,” and then three days later telling the American people, “I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.”
We have to consider what could have been spared — lives, livelihoods, grief, trauma — had the president emerged from those security briefings and demanded a robust, national system of testing and contact tracing and personal protective equipment manufacturing and mandatory mask-wearing and immediate, temporary lockdowns.
We have to consider how little he thinks of the supporters he continues to invite to rallies — and all the family members, friends and essential workers those supporters go home and interact with later.
As soon as the Woodward story broke, our political analyst hats came out. Won’t make a difference in November. Or: He’s toast in November.
I get it. We steel ourselves for outcomes we dread. We seek light and hope in outcomes we crave. We’re cynics or optimists or whatever life has taught us to be and we filter the news, first and foremost, through that lens.
But we’re also human. We also have an obligation — to our fellow humans, to the children we’re raising, to the people who came before us and the ones who’ll be here long after us — to bear honest witness to the devastation this virus has wrought.
To me, that means refusing to allow this particular deception, this particular caught-on-tape bombshell, to become just the latest in a series of outrages, little more than a bullet point on a crowded timeline of President Trump’s failures.
This virus has cost us too much. The numbers quantify who and what we’ve lost. The stories behind those numbers beg us to conjure our humanity and demand better.
President Trump should, of course, resign. This deception is 194,000 times worse than Watergate (and counting). He won’t. But that doesn’t stop the rest of us from taking our humanity and outrage and grief to the polls in November — and continuing to tap into them regardless of the outcome.
©2020 Chicago Tribune