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So far, I’ve been very fortunate. None of the people that I care about most has contracted COVID-19, no one I know has died, and no one I know has become dangerously ill. Yes, just like for millions of other people, the pandemic has affected my life negatively in numerous other ways (some worse than others), but when it comes down to the ultimate price this pandemic can extract, I’ve been spared.
Yesterday, I was given a stark reminder of not only how fortunate I’ve been so far, but also just how real the current crisis is. It wasn’t a reminder I’d like to receive again.
In the Western hemisphere, we’ve been living with the pandemic for approximately ten months, and after months of lockdowns and months of having numbers and statistics assaulting our eyes and ears on a daily basis, it’s easy to become sanitized to what’s going on in the world.
If the health of you and your loved ones is not being directly affected by the virus or if you’re not working on the front lines, the numbers and stories you see on TV, read online, and in newspapers can become just that – stories and numbers. The higher the numbers get, the harder it can be for the human brain to absorb the horror it’s being fed so, sometimes, it takes a short, sharp shock to put everything back into focus.
I’m not saying that I’ve become numb to other people’s suffering or that I’ve become emotionally detached from the pain that I see being inflicted on the lives of others, but a small but significant incident yesterday afternoon caught me off guard and left me more than a little shaken.
At a little past 2 pm yesterday, I was in the middle of a phone call with a phone agent for a major corporation (the name of the corporation is irrelevant to this story ) and the agent was working from home (let’s call the agent Mary). I had never spoken to Mary before but she was pleasant, friendly, and polite, and in between dealing with the business at hand, we exchanged a few snippets about our daily lives (“how’s lockdown going for you?”, “I wish this rain would stop so we could go outside”, “how are you dealing with the stores being closed?” etc…). It was pretty routine, banal, stuff.
Suddenly (this happened in the space of less than a second), Mary went from being in a cheerful conversation with me to being in floods of tears and mostly unable to speak. She managed to get out the words “sorry, I’ve just had some terrible news, I’ll have to put you on hold” before the phone line went quiet.
A few minutes later, she came back on the line but was still clearly incredibly upset. I asked her to forget the work she had been doing for me (it was more than a little insignificant at this point) and asked her if she wanted to talk.
Our conversation was short but it was long enough for her to tell me this: Her mother had been trying to call her all day but she hadn’t had a chance to talk to her because she was snowed under with work. She had been planning to call her back in the evening. A few moments earlier, a text message popped up on her screen that she couldn’t avoid seeing – it told her that her father had passed away.
In between tears, Mary told me that her father had been taken ill with the virus just a few days before, he had been in hospital for no more than 48 hours and, at least up until the previous evening when she last checked in on him, he was being looked after in a regular hospital ward and not the ICU. Now, he was no longer with us.
That was pretty much the end of our conversation.
Over the years, I’ve lost quite a few members of my own family so I’m probably more insulated than most against the emotions that news of a death brings, but this news really hit me hard. I’ve never met Mary, I don’t know Mary, I’ve never spoken to Mary before and I’ll probably ever speak to her again, and yet the news of her father’s sudden death really hit home.
I don’t know whether it was the experience of being there the very second that Mary found out that someone she loved had passed away that made me feel as I did, or whether listening to Mary’s news was just a catalyst that opened up a whole world of pent-up emotions that have been building up as the pandemic has dragged on. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter which of the two it is.
I’ve never been blasé about the death and destruction that the pandemic has wrought, but as the months have dragged on, I’ve definitely been guilty of starting to let things wash over me and guilty of allowing my mind to normalize the damage and suffering that people in the streets, towns, and cities around me have been facing (and are still facing today).
I think (hope) that my experience on the phone with Mary may have changed that – it’s too early to tell.
The death of Mary’s father wasn’t a number or a statistic on a screen or in a newspaper. For Mary and me, emotionally, it was something that happened right there in the middle of our phone call and it was very, very real. Listening to someone get news of a loved one dying is a horrible experience even if that someone isn’t a person you know at all, and while for Mary the experience was unquestionably infinitely worse than it was for me, it was certainly an experience I’m going to remember for some time.
It’s an experience that comes as a timely reminder to me that what we’re seeing on TV is real. The numbers representing the dead also represent real people. Real mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, and just because we’ve been living through this pandemic for a lot longer than most of us expected, it doesn’t mean that we should be taking things any less seriously now than when this was all still very new and scary.
Please wear a mask. Please consider others when you go outside your home. And please don’t take this virus to be anything other than a very real and very deadly enemy – because that’s exactly what it is.