Table of Contents
- 1 A mysterious new illness turns deadly
- 2 Facing waves of grief — in isolation
- 3 With rituals canceled, finding ways to honor the dead
- 4 As death toll grew, so did divide between rich and poor
- 5 An agonizing search for help amid an unending surge
The covid-19 death toll is on the brink of hitting 1 million. That’s as many as live in San Jose, Calif.; Volgograd, Russia; or Qom, Iran.
It is a disease that peppers grieving families with indignities — no funerals, hurried burials, barely a chance to mourn. A covid-19 death is one that claims many people when they are alone, often in hospitals saturated with fear, equipped with only the barest of weapons against the bug.
From the first days of mass deaths in China, the stories forced us to avert our eyes: A 55-year-old man in Wuhan bundles up his mother and father and hustles them from one overstuffed hospital to another, searching for a bed, finding none. He takes them home and watches them die.
Two sons in Italy, desperately trying to track the condition of their hospitalized parents, get the word by phone as their mother and father slipped away, two hours and 55 minutes apart.
It is a pandemic that has divided countries from within, yet unites the world in common anguish and loss. In the United States, a son in Sacramento can only listen to a description of his mother’s burial in New Jersey via his daughter, the only relative permitted to attend.
The dead are poor — in an Indian village, a man’s family borrows a wooden cart that a neighbor used to sell fish and carries his body to his funeral pyre. And the dead are workers — in Brazil, a man who works in a meatpacking plant does everything he can think of to protect himself, yet he brings the bug home and now his wife is dead.
Across the oceans and into the biggest cities and the tiniest villages, the coronavirus has torn apart families, left children hungry, evaporated jobs and wrecked economies. Death in this time has been cordoned off from the methods all cultures use to bring people together, becoming instead a moment that keeps us excruciatingly apart.
Yet at each stop along the virus’s eight-month journey, as deaths mounted, those whose loved ones died feel compelled to tell the stories of the people they’ve lost. Even as the illness spiked, these families fought to find a way to mourn together.
A mysterious new illness turns deadly
In the third week of February, the virus was still an abstract notion for many outside China. It wasn’t mentioned once at a press briefing for the Tokyo Olympics. The first presidential primaries dominated talk in Washington.
But in China, deaths from covid-19 were peaking at more than 250 a day. As a reporter traveling across China, I saw the country suddenly turn into something I didn’t recognize as I navigated cavernous but abandoned train stations. Smooth country highways were suddenly blockaded by anxious villagers bent on keeping out outsiders — and infection.
Yet it would be a month before the World Health Organization declared the existence of a pandemic, and China could still be stunned by the tragedy of the Chang-Liu family, which Chinese media outlets compared to “mie men,” or family extermination, the most brutal form of punishment known to ancient China.
The family’s saga was captured in one last note that Chang Kai, a well-known documentary filmmaker and Wuhan native, wrote to his friends.
Chang had spent weeks caring for his elderly parents after they contracted a mysterious pneumonia around Lunar New Year. Chang took his father and mother from one packed Wuhan hospital to another, begging in vain for a bed, until he finally gave up, took them home, and watched them die on Jan. 27 and Feb. 2, respectively.
Across town, Chang’s sister, Liu Fan, was also clinging to life after she became infected on the job at Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, where she worked around-the-clock as a deputy head nurse. It’s not known if she infected her parents, or if they contracted the virus at a New Year’s banquet on Jan. 24.
“For days, I’ve cared for my parents at their bedside, even as the ruthless pneumonia gnawed at my beloved wife and me,” Chang wrote to his Wuhan University classmate during his last month of life. “This sickness is beyond cure. The moment for treatment is passed.”
Chang, who was 55, died around dawn on Feb. 14, two weeks after his parents, according to a notice from Huangpi People’s Hospital. Twelve hours later, his sister, Liu, 59, died in Wuchang Hospital, the first Chinese nurse to succumb to the virus.
Shortly after Liu died, an anonymous Internet user posted news about the deaths of her brother and their parents. Chinese censors quickly labeled the news a fabrication by foreign forces to smear China’s image. But the authorities’ statement was in turn shot down by Wuchang Hospital, which confirmed that its nurse had died and issued condolences.
The story gripped the country. Liu’s supporters demanded to know whether hospitals were providing protective equipment to nurses. Four days after Chang and Liu died, Wuhan’s government finally confirmed that Liu, her parents and brother had all died but insisted that “medical staff had sufficient protective equipment thanks to” the government.
A longtime friend released Chang’s final note. In dense and literary Chinese, he raged about his helplessness as he wandered “from hospital to hospital, crying and begging them to spare an open bed” for his parents.
He did all he could, Chang wrote: “All my life I have been filial as a son, responsible as a father, loving as a husband, honest as a person. Farewell, to all those I loved, and all those who loved me.”
Facing waves of grief — in isolation
What some first perceived as a Chinese problem became a global crisis in Italy, where a soaring death toll put the world on notice. The national death count leaped each week, from 29 to 233 to 1,441, enough to overwhelm hospitals and trigger an inconceivable lockdown. Yet the damage was just beginning. Crematoriums couldn’t keep up. In the northern city of Bergamo, the military was called in to haul away the dead. Funeral homes saw a year’s worth of work in a month.
During the lockdown, from my apartment, I’d hear hospital helicopters zipping overhead, but the toll — the equivalent of multiple commercial plane crashes per day — still felt almost unfathomably vast. Each new day brought a new, incomprehensible number. As a journalist, it sometimes felt impossible to keep up, or to measure what happened on a single day, or even in a single household.
Long after the first wave had crested, we found two names, Silverio and Carla Polini. They had lived on a hilltop in the northern town of Sarnico. They had been married for 52 years, and they had two sons. Silverio, 77, and Carla, 72, had both contracted the coronavirus and had been taken to the hospital two days apart.
They died in the same hospital, in separate rooms, two hours and 55 minutes apart.
They were among 919 people in Italy who died of covid-19 on March 27, the peak of the country’s death toll.
Silverio had been a small-town insurance agent and still came into the office now and then. Carla had raised the kids. On a rare night they spent apart several years ago, both got teary-eyed on the phone.
Carla took pills for hypertension and had a mild form of diabetes, but Silverio was healthy. Their sons, Alberto and Gianfranco, thought it was inconceivable both parents might not come home from the hospital. Silverio had been able to walk to the ambulance on his own, and he’d been sending optimistic text messages from the hospital, urging his sons to “please keep asking for information about Mom.”
The nightmare started with two calls from the hospital in the same night. It continued when Silverio and Carla were buried without the presence of their sons, who were still in quarantine.
Alberto had been with them last. He’d gone over to the house, ushering his mom to the ambulance, and caring for his dad — listening to him cough through the night — for two days.
He had seen his parents hauled away. Gianfranco would have no such final images. “What is better?” Alberto asked his brother. Harrowing memories, or none at all? “What is worse?”
Gianfranco wished he’d been there. He was 45, separated from his wife and so close to his parents that, before the lockdown, he visited their house almost every day for lunch. But by the time his parents started showing symptoms, Gianfranco was sick as well, in self-isolation.
Even months later, Gianfranco couldn’t make sense of his parents’ absence.
“They have their gravestone and everything,” he said, “but still it hasn’t fully sunk in.”
For Alberto, the loss had fully, painfully registered. Well after the lockdown, into late July, it was finally time for the memorial service. Sarnico still had dozens of them, scheduled one after the next. The priest was there, the mourners were there, but what troubled Alberto the most was that his parents already felt far away. Like all the others, it was a funeral without the bodies.
“My parents, there, were nothing more than a photograph,” Alberto said.
With rituals canceled, finding ways to honor the dead
Even at 91, Rosario Gonzalez spoke to her three boys pretty much every day, Willy in Maine, Jose in Sacramento, and Carlos right there in the apartment they shared in a Manhattan housing project.
So when Jose called and called and nobody answered in those first days of April, when New York City was at the zenith of its covid-19 crisis, the family got worried. Jose asked the police to make a wellness check, and Jose’s daughter Jasmine and an ambulance crew came along.
They knocked and knocked on the fifth-floor apartment door. Nothing. Finally, officers broke down the door. Carlos, who was 65, was in his bed, dead of covid-19. Rosario, who came to the mainland from Puerto Rico when she was 21 and had spent the past 35 years working with children with special needs at a New York City public school, was in her bed, struggling to breathe.
She had told no one. “She didn’t want anybody to know what it was like,” Jose said. That was how she’d always been. The pain and troubles, she kept to herself. Everything else, she offered to her family and her students and everyone else she met, from the dozen foster children she raised in her apartment to the kids at school who knew her as the lady who slipped them sticks of Juicy Fruit gum.
Rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, Rosario died there the next day, April 5, a day when 580 New York City residents died of the virus. Two days later, the city would hit its peak, as 599 people succumbed to covid-19.
There are some stories for which reporters have to pry information out of people. The pandemic is not one of those stories. Rarely have I seen people so eager to tell us what they’ve been through. They want us all to know how searing this disease is, how it devastated their families, but above all, how it has robbed us of the ways in which we honor those we’ve lost.
Across cultures, people have developed finely detailed rituals of mourning — funerals, eulogies, wakes, burial ceremonies. They are ways for the bereaved to come together, and nearly all of them have been canceled by this disease.
So when I called Rosario’s family, they were hungry to tell the world how she lived and how she died. Jose Gonzalez was in his RV this week, driving from California to New York, his first chance to visit his mother’s grave and see relatives, more than five months too late.
A covid-19 death is stripped of its dignity and distinction. There was no real funeral. Jose’s daughter, Jasmine Gonzalez-Chavez, a teacher inspired by her grandmother, was the only relative allowed at the burial. Because of the crush of deaths, the Gonzalezes had no choice of coffins for Rosario. She was buried in a plain pine box.
It seemed contrary to who she was, her family said. “She just made you feel like you were the center of the world when you were with her,” Gonzalez-Chavez said. “I have 16 cousins and she made every one of us feel special.”
Rosario had stayed in her East Harlem building, despite her family’s efforts to get her to move to a more upscale setting, because it was where she prayed every Sunday and where she saw the children from P.S. 79, where she was a paraprofessional.
The neighborhood loved her back. They sang with her, called her “Grandma Rose,” leaned on her when things got hard.
She was the first in her family to get a college degree. She sent her boys to college, and her foster kids, too. Rosario had 17 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, and on their birthdays, she called them up and sang them “Happy Birthday,” “the whole song,” Jasmine said, “like Marilyn Monroe, all the way through, like you were the one and only.”
As death toll grew, so did divide between rich and poor
Her name was Patrícia. She had been young and hopeful — a homemaker with long blond hair, three children and another on the way. But now Patrícia Beatriz Albuquerque Correa had become another “statistic,” as her husband put it, in a relentless disaster.
In less than 200 days, nearly 141,000 Brazilians have died of the coronavirus, and how do you make sense of something so big? Perhaps there is no way. Perhaps you do what many Brazilians have done: Go to the beach, pack the bars, accept the virus as an inevitability. “The virus is like rain,” President Jair Bolsonaro has said. “It will reach you.”
In the last seven months, I’ve spoken with too many Brazilian families wetted by this rain. The enraged daughter whose father spent his final hours waiting for a hospital bed that never came. The mother who sat alone at home, wondering why she’d been spared, but not her 25-year-old daughter. The Indigenous leader who’d seen a terrible plague in a vision, but couldn’t save 17 of his relatives.
And now the Correa family. Patrícia lived in the remote city of Colíder in the state of Mato Grosso, and this was supposed to be a happy time. She was eight months pregnant. After three sons, she was having the daughter she’d always wanted. Her husband, Valtair Porto, had become a supervisor at the local meatpacking plant, in charge of workers in the loading department.
But in June, the coronavirus, until then concentrated in the big cities, had reached Colíder and the plant. Valtair brought the bug home. He tried to isolate, but it was too late. Patrícia soon had trouble breathing. She was hospitalized, intubated, put on a ventilator. The doctors saved the baby, but not Patrícia. She died on July 25, one more quiet death among 1,210 others that day. She was 38. Four days later, Brazil hit its peak, 1,595 deaths in one day.
The virus is like rain. It will reach you.
Last week, I called Valtair. He’s a disciplined man whose life revolves around family, faith and a factory worker’s rigid schedule: 5 a.m. in, 5 p.m. out. He said they’d tried to stay safe at the plant. Workers had worn masks. People kept their distance. Everything was rubbed down with alcohol.
“Everything that was demanded, we did,” he said.
Listening to him talk, I felt a familiar pang of guilt. Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal countries, and when the pandemic hit, the class divide widened further. The wealthy worked from home. The poor rode crowded buses. The wealthy ordered groceries. The poor delivered them. The wealthy went into the private health-care system. The poor entered the crumbling public system. Many wealthy lived. Many poor didn’t.
I’ve never been wealthy in my life, but in Brazil, I am. From the earliest days of the pandemic, I worked from home, ordered my groceries, minimized risks. Valtair, meanwhile, kept going to the factory, even after he buried his wife. He kept going — not just to support his family, but because it helped drown out a thought that keeps returning: He was the one who got his wife sick.
“It’s in the air,” he said. “The guilt.”
Most days now, he said, he likes to imagine she’s traveling. She’ll be back any minute. But “it isn’t true,” he said. “She isn’t coming home.”
I told him how unfair it has all been and that I would pray for his family. I put down the phone. I walked to the window and closed it. A rain was coming in.
An agonizing search for help amid an unending surge
In India, the number of daily coronavirus deaths climbed above 1,200 in September. No one knows if that is a peak or a prelude.
Unlike any other country seriously affected by the virus, India’s curve has trended upward for months — no plateau, no second wave, just a long, grinding climb. A numbness has set in. The pandemic often drops off the front pages. Earlier this month, when India set a daily record for the most new coronavirus cases, television channels were obsessing over the suicide of a handsome Bollywood star.
For me, the most frightening stories were of families struggling to get medical care. I spoke to a son who called dozens of hospitals trying to find a bed for his ailing father, culminating in a frantic car ride with his father straining to breathe. Then there was the doctor in Mumbai who was turned away from numerous hospitals: all full.
And those were people with resources, with clout. If you were poor, like Ganesh Tikone, there was no help. Tikone died in the home where he grew up, just two rooms shared by nine people in a village in western India, a cluster of rutted streets in the shadow of green hills.
When he had trouble breathing earlier this month, he confined himself to the porch, little more than a metal roof supported by bamboo poles. He didn’t want anyone else to get sick.
For Tikone, a 42-year-old poultry worker and fish vendor in a place called Khanapur, covid-19 was a desperate struggle. There were no beds for critically ill patients at the first hospital he visited, no space in the second hospital and finally, no vehicle to transport his body to the cremation ground.
Experts knew India faced a vast challenge in the pandemic. On top of more than 1.3 billion people, densely populated cities and weak health-care infrastructure, a nationwide lockdown exacted a staggering cost: 120 million jobs vanished while workers flowed out of cities on foot.
The country reopened, and by September, new cases touched nearly 100,000 a day. In such a situation, who could say where Tikone had contracted the virus? Perhaps from his eight-hour shift at a poultry plant. Maybe from his second job, selling the fish he caught in the nearby Mutha River to supplement his $160 monthly salary. Perhaps from a neighbor in their lane, a relative, a friend.
Tikone was a quiet man who dropped out of school at the age of 10. He worked long hours so his two children, an 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, could complete their education. A few weeks ago, Ganesh and his younger brother Manish — their families lived together in the same small house — developed a fever. On Sept. 7, they went for a coronavirus test at a hospital.
Ganesh began to feel breathless. Doctors found that his blood oxygen level was perilously low. They sent him to a larger hospital, where Ganesh received oxygen but was not admitted, Manish said.
The hospital required a deposit, and the family rushed to pull together the funds. By the time they arrived with the cash, the hospital said its beds were full. The family tried other hospitals, too: no space anywhere.
“Rich people can save their lives because they have money, but what will poor people do?” asked Manish.
They went home. Manish slept on the covered porch with Ganesh. Early the next morning, he found Ganesh motionless and tried to wake his brother. “I couldn’t understand that he was dead,” Manish said.
Local officials tried for hours to find a vehicle to transport Ganesh’s body to the nearby cremation ground. Finally, the village head arranged for four personal protective equipment kits and a bag for the body. The family borrowed a cart that a neighbor used to sell fish. Four men — the village head, a local doctor, a police official and Ganesh’s cousin Omkar — pushed the cart through empty streets. They piled the wood and lit the pyre themselves.
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Taniya Dutta in New Delhi contributed to this report.