The juxtaposition of these events induced powerful waves of anger, sorrow and despair. Dennis seemed to be succumbing to the virus while the leader of the free world was waving on a joyride and ripping off his mask in flagrant gestures designed to portray this scourge as no scourge at all. Don’t be afraid? Don’t let it dominate your life? I believe the families of the 7.6 million people in the United States who have been infected with the novel coronavirus have been battling the same feelings I am. This disease dominates you; you have no choice about it, and we should all live in fear.
That doesn’t mean quivering and quaking and hiding. It simply means doing what is necessary to protect yourself and your loved ones, something the White House has ignored.
Dennis isn’t my first up-close and personal experience with covid-19. Back in March, when the U.S. death toll was below 200, I had a troubling call with my boss — and good friend — who was worried he might have picked up the virus on a trip to New York City. This was just days before Mayor Bill De Blasio shut down the city; “social distancing” was a new concept. Larry was coughing and achy, he told me, and just wasn’t feeling right. I tried to reassure him. “Hang in there,” I said. Two days later, he was dead.
This week, as my brother struggled to talk between coughing jags, I didn’t want to tell him that our conversation reminded me of that one I had with Larry. “This isn’t the flu,” Dennis gasped. “I’ve had the flu. This is bad. You don’t want this. No one does.” We had to ring off because talking induced more coughing. I set down the phone and cried. And cried some more.
As we have aged into our 60s, my twin and I typically resort to dark humor, saying that we look at each other less as siblings now and more like spare parts. “How’s your liver, your lungs; are your kidneys all right? I might need one someday.” Others may cringe, but we have an understanding. Even in this terrible moment, we’ve found ways to keep going. “I think I might see Elvis today,” he texted from his hospital bed one day. He wasn’t joking, really.
An inveterate writer, Dennis has been chronicling his experience with the virus on Facebook, posting selfies while wearing an oxygen mask. Hundreds of people have commented on the postings, the majority wishing him well and promising prayers. But there were comments from a woman in Michigan that underscored where we are today as a country. This person cast Dennis as a liar, saying he had “no credibility” because he has a Black Lives Matter image on his page and lives in D.C., because he is obviously “rabid anti Trump” and because he had overstated the number of covid-related deaths, which she said were “under 10,000.” (The official tally is more than 212,000.) And he’s “into journalism,” she added.
How did we get here? How did we get to the point of unbridled distrust and heartless dismissiveness? We got here because our leaders clung to and prioritized political and economic calculations when confronting the virus. Because they have portrayed those who believe in drastic measures to arrest this plague as leftists out to destroy the country. Because the president sees his reputation and image reflected only in stock market gains, popularity polls and TV ratings. Do you recall him saying, “Here’s what we’re all going to do to eradicate this disease in 60 to 90 days; it won’t be easy but together we can do this. Here’s the plan”? I don’t. I remember: “It will miraculously go away,” It’s like the flu, suggesting that it would be gone by Easter and then by the Fourth of July. And now: “It’s not that bad.”
It is true that more people survive covid-19 than die from it. My twin brother and the president may be among those. But that’s no solace when there’s still no plan to halt this plague, to ease the pain and suffering of so many. Nine months into this pandemic and cases are rising, not falling.
As I write this, I am fearful that I — or someone else I love —might get the virus. I am grieving for those who have died from it. And I am profoundly sad and worried about what it has revealed about our country and the man who leads it.