A Christmas wish

If your parents or grandparents die of Covid-19, please make sure the disease appears as the cause of death in their obituaries. Or if you should yourself be so unfortunate, please ask your family to do the same for you.

Since March, I’ve had 20-30% more obituaries to write than normal, yet hardly any of the source obituaries from the hometown newspaper or notes submitted by family mention Covid-19. It’s always “natural causes,” “after a brief illness,” or no cause of death at all. But many of the deceased actually asphyxiated alone and unconscious in a hospital, surrounded by medical personnel rather than family. Likely due feeling guilty or ashamed, the next of kin are reluctant to admit that grandma died of Covid-19. That’s understandable, but harmful.

It’s hard enough for us to judge risk and assess exponential growth. Even current local statistics don’t tell the whole story if we don’t have names and faces to put with them. Consequently, we underestimate risks and make poor decisions. We tell ourselves, “No one I know has been sick,” or, “It only affects old and unhealthy people, so I’ll be okay.” For Christmas, I’m wishing more people will specify Covid-19 as the cause of death so we’ll be able to make better choices.

The same is true of catching Covid-19. There’s reluctance to admit that yes, I thought I was taking the right precautions, but I was wrong. Instead we hear only of a family not feeling well, or a ward member disappears from Zoom meetings for a while. Information that is essential for the woefully human decision-making circuits in our brains isn’t being communicated.

So as my contribution to your reassessment of your personal Covid-19 risk, let me mention that I and my immediate family spent much of November dealing with Covid-19, and it really is a disease you don’t want to get. My “mild” case meant that I had fatigue and brain fog, periodic joint and muscle pain bad enough to leave me shaking, headache and vertigo, disturbed sleep, mild fever and a perpetual aftertaste of rotting garbage. Two months after symptom onset, I still experience sporadic fatigue. It’s not just the flu. The symptoms last longer and are much less predictable. Our older daughter was entirely asymptomatic, while the younger one, the cross country runner, had the worst case in the family. You don’t want even a mild case of this.

We have no idea where our precautions fell short. My wife and I work from home, our younger kids are in online school, church is online, and we rarely go anywhere or interact with other people in person. We took every precaution that seemed prudent, but somewhere we misjudged the risk. Risk is hard to assess correctly when you’re on the pointy end of exponential growth like we were experiencing in November and many other places are experiencing now. Fortunately we’re feeling fine now, our cases didn’t require hospitalization and we were in a position to maintain quarantine until well after anyone was potentially infectious. Not everyone will be so fortunate.

There’s still time for you to re-evaluate your holiday plans. With a vaccine starting to roll out, remember how little we still understand about this virus and how bad we are at assessing risk and exponential growth, and think long and hard about your holiday plans this year.

12 comments for “A Christmas wish

  1. I don’t know where you live, but where I live nobody is ashamed to admit they contracted Covid. It also seems to me that the numbers are reported high enough to scare people (though interestingly flu deaths have gone way down).

  2. “We have no idea where our precautions fell short. ”

    There’s this trope that Latter-day Saints are perfectionists who pathologically harm themselves by assigning fault to every failing. This common secular-faux-scientist response to presumed covid failures follows the same path.

    It’s not a failure that someone eventually contracted an airborn virus that a harvard epidemiologist said 70% of the world will contract covid. I can’t recall the exact title, but back in the spring, the direct of health, yada yada in NJ predicted she would get covid and that 70-90% of people would get it. But the talk was slowing down the rate of infection.

    80% of people randomly sampled in NY have a respiratory virus. 90% of adults have epstein bar virus. This idea that a precaution fell short because someone got a virus is the wrong way to look at things.

    There’s no one to blame — even if you can point to an area where your “precaution” led to contracting the virus. There’s a reason why viral labs have airlocks, clean rooms, pressurized suits, etc.

  3. So how are you taking the news that White House appointee Paul Alexander was arguing for policies to keep kids in school and colleges in session so they could pass Covid-19 around?

  4. J3D, there’s plenty of blame to go around. There’s the failure to implement a national policy, the cranks and grifters who found willing listeners, the undermined and mismanaged federal agencies, the governor who meant well but wouldn’t step up when things got critical, the city council that dithered, the mayor who opposed them when they did get around to doing something, the school board that wouldn’t provide useful information but was eager to push responsibility onto parents… It’s a long list.

    But, as Sute reminds us, Covid-19 doesn’t care about whatever morality tale we concoct. It literally has no figs to give. All it’s looking for is a chance to replicate. Even now, a lot of the narratives we create are about the good people (cities, states, nations, etc.) who do what’s right to avoid infection and the bad people who don’t, even after two or three rounds of “good” places turning into bad places, but the only thing the virus responds to is how well or badly public health measures are implemented. It’s a rain that falls on good and ill alike. You can do everything right, and then one wrong calculation (when all calculations will eventually be wrong, thanks to a lack of information and the complexity of the problem) sends cases skyrocketing again.

  5. Speaking to your opening statement, I think it will be valuable (50 years from now? 100?) to have the cause of death specified in an obituary. The current pandemic led me to look back over ancestors who passed away around the 1918 influenza pandemic to see how they fared. Sometimes, as you mention, it was a brief illness or natural causes. Other times it was a lingering illness, or lung disease, or pneumonia. It has been difficult to make determinations in many cases, and for one case that seemed pretty clear (“an infection of the lungs”), it turned out to be a congenital disease unrelated to influenza. I’m not much for family history work, but found meaning in trying to relate our current situation with that of others. Be specific in your documentation. It just might make it easier for someone in the future.

  6. Ardis Parshall’s series this year shows some of the longterm value of identifying cause of death in obituaries.

  7. Mike, yes flu cases have gone down here too, because of masks and social distancing, even though the virus is under control. Feel sorry for those of you in America. Terrible mismanagement.

  8. Yes, it was Ardis’ series that inspired me to do a little digging. I highly recommend following that series.

  9. Assigning cause of death is very often not so straightforward, especially when there is a long list of cormobidity as is the case with many covid-related deaths. Obituaries, unless they’re quoting from a death certificate, are of questionable reliability. Cause of death should be determined by a competent physician, and even then they’re not always putting enough thought into it.

  10. Think about the current zeitgeist, I’m sure the families don’t want to be shamed and persecuted.

  11. A more virulent variation is now at it’s terrible work in the U.K. and Europe, such that we are in a second lockdown in the south east where we have to fundamentally stay at home, resulting in parents not being able to get their kids home from uni or see relatives in care homes, and untold suffering to those who are unable to understand circumstances that isolate them from friends and family. The less we mix, the less likely we are to spread this virus and maintain a situation where we have a chance of vaccinating a sufficient number of people to get on the winning side of this before it overwhelms our medical services.
    Very challenging times, God bless our key workers.

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