Masks Matters. As Do You.
The cover of this week’s Sunday New York Times was stunning in its simplicity, yet powerful in its portrayal of the gravity of this moment. The headline: “U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS” loomed above a thousand names of human beings, in tiny print, one after another, row after row – a newsprint version of the Vietnam Memorial, but for our current pandemic. And yet the names represented just one percent of the U.S. death toll (so far) in the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, the loss seems incalculable. But in fact, it’s not. So, the Times staff took on the laborious and painful project of identifying as many of the COVID-19 casualties as possible, listing the names that could fit on their pages and eulogizing those lives lost. 1,000 is a lot of people. 100,000 is even harder to fathom. So many lives… Old lives. Young lives. Black lives. Brown lives. White lives. Lives. Great-grandparents. Grandparents. Mothers and fathers. Husbands and wives. Sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters. Grandchildren. Rich people. Poor people. People.
Having one’s name on the cover of the New York Times is not something most people expect, but at least it’s recognition of a life lived – something in a tragedy that for many has turned death, life’s most intimate, existentially profound moment, into a ceremoniless experience marked by loneliness and anonymity.
When my father died four years ago, it was, in many ways, the saddest day of my life; but it was also, in its way, supremely poignant. I, along with my mother, my siblings, our spouses and our kids, stood around my father’s hospital bed, holding his hand, telling him how much we loved him. We played his favorite song. A rabbi said the Mourner’s Kaddish – a Hebrew prayer recited for mourning though it makes no mention of death. I know that to have that prayer recited at his passing was deeply meaningful to my dad – it was a prayer he recited every morning for a year after his father passed. These ceremonies matter.
The listing of names on the Times’ cover was planned for Memorial Day weekend, a day for honoring the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. Military; but this year Memorial Day also seemed to signal a new war, this one on the home front. And it started me thinking about a short film called “Powers of Ten” made in 1969 by the world-renowned designers and thinkers Charles and Ray Eames. The film is about our relative size in the universe. It begins with a one-meter wide shot of a couple’s lakeside picnic in Chicago. From there the camera begins to pull out and every ten seconds we can see from ten times further away with a ten times wider field of view. At 10,000 meters we still see the lake’s shore. At 100,000 meters we can see all of Lake Michigan. By 10 million meters the earth shows as a solid sphere and then diminishes into the distance, with background stars. Eventually, at 100 million meters, one can see the orbital paths of our neighboring planets, Venus and Mars, then Mercury; and then, into the field of view, comes the sun and off we go into the outskirts of the galaxy.
The film’s powerful imagery makes the point that 100 million light years out, this emptiness is normal. The Earth is but a speck of sand – insignificant really. And yet, to each other, we are incredibly significant. That person who is just one name among the 999 other names listed on the Times’ cover, or worse, those names that did not even make it on to that list, is somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother, somebody’s best friend. Anyone who’s been a parent (or even a pet owner) knows that you are the universe to this other being. You matter. We each matter, relatively insignificant as we may be.
According to a study released last week by Columbia University, 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 could have been prevented if broad social distancing measures had been implemented just one week earlier in March. Underlining the importance of aggressively responding to the coronavirus, the study found that the U.S. could have avoided at least 700,000 infections if actions that began on March 15 had actually started on March 8. Just one week of hesitation. One week of ambivalence. One week of inaction. 36,000 deaths.
As I watch the world begin to reopen – including our local stores and restaurants and downtown’s State Street, newly closed to cars for blocks and suddenly teaming with people – I fear we are already becoming sloppy. I fear these past months when so much was sacrificed – earnings, career momentum, businesses, new relationships, time with loved ones – that in our haste to get life back to “normal” we will fail to protect these investments. Certainly, if we learned anything from the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flow, it’s that the threat is not over when we’re tired of it. The threat is over when it has either been mitigated or has actually gone away.
The fact is, each day we’re still losing hundreds, sometimes thousands, to this virus, with tens of thousands being newly infected daily. Yet little-by-little six feet is becoming three feet. Face masks are becoming bracelets and necklaces. Groups are expanding. It’s a slippery slope. Our kids want to hang out with their friends. The other parents are letting them do it. We all want our lives back. We want to go out to eat. To see our friends. To go to work. To hug our extended families. To experience joy. Unfettered joy. To Shop. To drink. To live.
Yes, we want to live. So, shouldn’t we protect the investments made for which we have paid so dearly? Shouldn’t we make our sacrifices count? As we move forward with respect and gratitude for all the lives risked, and with sorrow for the too many souls lost, following the guidelines for a safe reopening is the one thing in our power. It’s for us; but even more so it’s for others. It’s for those who can’t escape by teleworking. It’s for our seniors. It’s for those with underlying conditions. It’s for nurses. For doctors. For grocery store workers.
Science will get us to the other side of this, but we each need to do our part until it gets us there. Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It’s a nod to the fundamental truth that behind every political perspective, every tweet, every faceless name on a painfully long list and yes, behind every mask, there is a human being. A significant life that matters.