Invisible deaths: from retirement homes to prisons, the corona balance is out of sight – and out of mind? | US news



ohn Delano was six years old when the contagion hit his neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. There was a morgue just down the road. The coffins began to spill over onto the sidewalk. It was the perfect scene for an exciting new game.

“We thought, ‘Boy, this is great,'” he recalls. “It’s like climbing on the pyramids. Then one day I slipped and broke my nose on one of the coffins. My mother was very upset. She said, didn’t I know there were people in these boxes who were dead? ”

Delano’s account, recorded in Catharine Arnold’s story of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, sums up one crucial aspect of this catastrophe: the public nature of death. Coffins have become a feature of everyday life, stacked on the sidewalks and in the front rooms of people. Roads were blocked from dawn to dusk with horse-drawn hearses toward cemeteries.

A century later, death has disappeared from the streets of America. The 2020 pandemic is memorable not for stacked coffins but for data modeling and statistics. For most Americans, the figure of 85,901 deaths in the United States is as visceral as possible.

A virus that is inherently invisible has spawned a nationwide response in which the most extreme manifestation of the disease, loss of life, is also invisible. You cannot play the pyramids of coffins when the funeral has been transferred to this great resting place in the cyber sky: Zoom.

Omar Rodriguez and Joseph Neufeld Jr work in a funeral home in Queens, New York.
Omar Rodriguez and Joseph Neufeld Jr work in a Queens funeral home in New York. Photography: Agence Anadolu / Agence Anadolu via Getty Images

“We hear and talk about death all the time, but we don’t see anything,” said Megan Devine, psychotherapist and bereavement educator in Portland, Oregon. “We know the statistics, but let us leave that number, the weight of everything that has lost humanity,”

Without the physical rituals associated with mourning, Devine said, even loved ones who succumb become invisible. “You can’t be at their bedside when they die, you can’t go to their funerals or their visits. They just disappear. This deepens the unreality of death. “

We hear and talk about death all the time, but we don’t see anything

Megan Devine

In any national or global emergency, the media plays an inordinate role in transmitting extreme experiences to those who do not have direct contact. The image of Kim Phuc, the “daughter of napalm” during the Vietnam War, became a recognized representation of the conflict, energizing the peace movement.

Covid-19 has not yet been framed by such an image. Photographers are struggling to fill the void because they are embarrassed on many levels.

Doctors load a patient into the ambulance at the West Revere Health Center in Revere, Massachusetts.
Doctors load a patient into the ambulance at the West Revere Health Center in Revere, Massachusetts. Photography: Brian Snyder / Reuters

Confidentiality laws make access to hospitals extremely difficult. Photographers have been struck by the lack of protective equipment they need to protect their own health, a problem compounded by fears of news agencies reluctant to take responsibility if their employees fall ill or die.

In the United States, one of the many surreal aspects of the coronavirus is that photographers are surrounded by one of the biggest reports in their lives, but are forced to sit idly by. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) recently organized a fundraising campaign for freelancers whose work has dried up.

If ordinary people don’t see it, then they start to think, “This is not my problem, it is the problem of others”

Ralph Begleiter

“The power of the image is to connect people to the humanity of others,” said Akili Ramsess, executive director of NPPA. “But accessing these images is becoming more and more difficult, and that is what we lack with the coronavirus. “

Rosem Morton understands better than most the invisibility gap between reality and media representation. She wears two hats – she is a nurse working in operating rooms as well as a professional photographer.

Morton said that the combination of privacy laws, censorship by healthcare facilities, fears of liability and shortages of PPE have meant that the media only convey to the public a burst of the intensity of the current disaster.

“There are many aspects of this story that we don’t see,” she said, “and the images that reach audiences are very limited. “

A “reclining team”, wearing personal protective equipment, returns a patient with Covid-19 to Stamford, Connecticut. Photography: John Moore / Getty Images

At worst, Morton thinks that the relative scarcity of media images contributes to the widespread disengagement. “People don’t take security guidelines seriously for themselves and for others,” she said.

Ralph Begleiter, former CNN diplomatic correspondent and professor of journalism at the University of Delaware, has first-hand experience of the importance of media visuals in countering the invisibility of death. In 2005, he played a central role in persuading the Pentagon, under threat of legal action, to publish photos of American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in flag coffins.

“I think these images made a difference. The Americans did not see them, “he said.

There have been a number of burning images that have emerged from the Covid-19 crisis, such as haunting images of refrigerated trucks parked in front of hospitals, waiting for body bags. Another memorable snapshot was mass graves dug on New York’s Hart Island – the New York Police Department quickly confiscated the drone used to uproot it.

But Begleiter fears that most of these powerful photos come from urban centers infected with the virus – New York, Washington, Chicago, Seattle – as opposed to the rural heart that is now feeling the brunt of the pandemic.

“If ordinary people do not see it in their daily lives, then they start to think:” This is not my problem, it is the problem of others “- and this is what is happening in rural America “, did he declare.

The invisibility of the crisis in the heart of the United States is compounded by the concentration of deaths in places far removed from the experience of most Americans. Aside from hospitals, the pandemic hurricane wave is felt in three places, all of which are largely or totally out of reach of the public: nursing homes, prisons with a high proportion of Afro inmates -Americans and meat packing plants which employ a largely migrant Latin American workforce.

An inmate from the maximum security unit at Cook County Prison in Chicago presses his hands against the window, calling for help.
An inmate from the Cook County Hail Maximum Security Unit in Chicago presses his hands against the window on a cry for help. Photography: Tannen Maury / EPA

The segregation of Covid’s deaths out of town and behind locked doors, where most Americans cannot see them, provided a political boon for Donald Trump. This allowed the president to downplay the importance of the virus for weeks, prompting the reopening of the economy, even if it risks the lives of tens of thousands of largely poor, black and Latino citizens.

This phenomenon was well visible this week when Trump chastised his top infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, for stating that opening the country could risk an outbreak of new infections. Trump said of Fauci’s factual and scientific remark: “To me, this is not an acceptable answer” – a claim he could never have got away with if the human costs of Covid-19 had been more visible.

The detachment that many Americans feel has also allowed Trump to play the “other” card, describing the contagion as the fault and property of others. He tried to portray the virus as a foreign problem – the “Chinese virus” – while blaming the democratic governors simply because their states contain the most affected cities.

The scapegoats have been a feature of pandemics throughout history. Jews were blamed for the 14th century black plague; conspiracy theories emerged during the First World War that Germany had created the Spanish flu as a biological weapon; during the 2003 Sars epidemic, Asian American communities were stigmatized and discriminated against.

“Every pandemic I have seen has seen an increase in racism,” said Steven Taylor, clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Taylor launched a study of 7,000 adults from the United States and Canada to assess how they are doing. His early discoveries suggest that the invisible nature of the damage inflicted by Covid-19 causes volatile behavior at opposite ends of the spectrum.

At one extreme, about 15% of those surveyed suffered from what Taylor dubbed “Covid stress syndrome”. These people are so hyper-aware of the contagion, even if they cannot see it, that they feel deep anxiety about coming into contact with it, to the point of becoming practically confined to the home.

At the other extreme, a similarly sized subset has drunk Trump’s Kool-Aid and is convinced that the plague is a hoax or exaggerated.

“They come out and say, ‘We can see the economic devastation of the lockdown all around us, but we can’t see people who are sick and dying,'” said Taylor.

A man stops outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street as the coronavirus keeps the financial and corporate markets closed.
A man stops in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, as the coronavirus keeps the financial and corporate markets closed. Photography: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The wave of foreclosure protests outside state capitals is the most acute manifestation to date. At its most dystopian, it fueled a new generation of conspiracy theories such as Plandemic, a disinformation video that drew millions of viewers online by falsely claiming that the coronavirus is the creation of pharmaceutical companies and Bill Gates.

While it is difficult to find a vaccine for Covid-19 in months, if not years, of success, Taylor has alarming news about the prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment. In a new sample from his survey group that has yet to be released, he found that a surprising 21% of Americans said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine.

If this proportion translates into a real rejection of the vaccine, it could compromise the collective immunity on which the health and safety of all Americans will depend.


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