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Pretending won’t make the coronavirus go away


By Elizabeth Perry

Going into the new year, the COVID-19 pandemic is still having an impact on us as a culture, despite the lockdowns ending.

In our last issue, we covered the increase in mental health emergencies among students at the Carlynton School District. An expert in the district said many of the problems could be blamed on issues stemming from isolation and grief experienced over the pandemic.

Librarian Julie Himmelstein, who works at Sto-Rox Junior/Senior High, said she has noticed a lot of her students are still having trouble recovering after being out of a structured environment.

“They haven’t had to function like this for so long,” Himmelstein said.

Photographer Martha Rial, project coordinator for the McKeesport Community Newsroom who has recently been working with students at Sto-Rox, works with low-income students and has seen the trouble firsthand.

“Inequities were pushed even farther. The stresses are unbelievable,” Rial said.

More than 1,086,197 people died in the United States from COVID-19. That’s almost the entire population of Allegheny County.

A loss of that many people disrupts families and communities. People who used to care for children, participate in government and do their jobs are gone. There is a lot of talk about labor shortages but we’ve been slow to acknowledge the ghost in the room.

This pandemic has become endemic, and though the severity has lessened for many who’ve been vaccinated, there are still thousands of deaths per week.

In the middle of December, the death toll across the United States stood at 2,952 people a week.

Like other diseases before it, COVID-19 is endemic, another factor we have to deal with like the flu or strep throat. We still have to accommodate the unwanted guest at our holiday tables.

My family’s first version of Christmas got canceled this year because our host tested positive for COVID-19, and couldn’t have us over for a visit. It was especially painful since it would’ve been the first time we’d been able to see one another since before the pandemic. We cried and I advised her to try and treat herself over the course of her quarantine–enjoy her headache, as my Polish Nana would say.

Then the frigid weather pattern blew through and laughed at us all.

Prior to that, my little ones were feeling sick, so I took them to the doctor. The nurse immediately tested them for strep, but not for the coronavirus.

Then our doctor cautiously and nervously explained how they may be ill with the disease and it was a good idea to test because of the risk of infecting elderly relatives.

Baffled, I immediately agreed to have them tested, just to be sure and expressed disbelief that I had to be convinced. My doctor said a lot of parents had been refusing to have their kids tested for the virus.

That floored me. As a parent, it’s inconceivable to me that a person wouldn’t want to know as much as they could about their child’s health in order to protect that kid and everyone else. Perhaps knowing would kick off mandatory absences which that parent couldn’t financially deal with, but then that’s just passing on the trouble to someone else.

Even though we’ve had a recent spate of national politicians campaigning against COVID-19 health measures and lockdowns, and even some local ones, the virus isn’t political. The impacts of the coronavirus on people and the damage the lockdowns did even while trying to mitigate the disaster are real.

As a culture, we dealt with a horrifying situation in real-time, with the best information we had.

On the left and the right there are things about the disease that no one wants to bring up.

Lockdowns created terrible situations for many young children. Kids who were in sexually or physically abusive situations with parents were locked in with their tormentors for months on end. Isolation had a destructive impact on many people of all ages. Even if they slowed the spread of the disease and saved lives, they were not without consequences.

COVID-19 is a deadly disease and the vaccine against it has done a lot to mitigate its impact–those who refuse to get the vaccine for non-medical reasons are putting themselves and everybody else at risk.

Fatigue surrounding these topics is very, very real. Anyone pulled into a futile argument about them will certainly agree.

But we can’t pretend everything’s OK now. Back to “normal” isn’t convincing ourselves this disease isn’t deadly or that isolation wasn’t devastating for many. Ignoring the impact of COVID-19 isn’t going to bring back the people who died and the contributions they will no longer make to our world.

Right before the lockdown, my grandfather went into the hospital with a respiratory illness.

They weren’t testing for COVID-19 at the time, but in retrospect, we’ve come to believe it is what killed him. I debated leaving town to go see him in the hospital, agonizing over leaving my kids, husband and brand new job. Then the decision was made for me.

We still haven’t had a funeral after his cremation. I am not the only one. So many of us have bodies we’ve left unburied after this devastating period in our global history. We have to acknowledge it if we’re ever going to recover.

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