The creator of “Faces of COVID” looks back on a dark milestone – The Forward

A million.

The United States is approaching or has already surpassed that number of COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, by most calculations — a new order of magnitude of loss that is difficult to grasp. When the United States reached 100,000 COVID victims, The New York Times devoted its entire front page to what he called “an incalculable loss”. What is 10 times incalculable, and how can people accept the ever-growing hole that a million deaths have left in our social fabric?

There are few people more aware of the depth of Americans’ pain over the past two years than Alex Goldstein.

Goldstein began posting short obituaries of COVID-19 victims on Twitter in March 2020, pulling a few daily from news stories and reader submissions. Since then the @FacesOfCOVID account posted more than 7,000, each accompanied by a photo of the deceased. “A smile was on his face no matter what,” it read, for a Florida man named Donald Clayman. Another, submitted for an Alabama woman named Anne-Gaillardsimply reads: “I miss her.”

Goldstein is Jewish, but the faces of COVID are from multiple religions, and no religion at all. Yet maintaining the narrative seemed like a Jewish ritual to Goldstein from the start, reflecting the religious imperative to give dignity to the dead. He compared replying to or liking a Faces of COVID post to placing a rock on someone’s headstone.

And although the project’s digital headstones now number in the thousands, they represent less than one percent of the national sum. It’s one of the reasons Goldstein, who founded a public relations firm and sits on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, thinks there must be something more substantial than his page. Twitter to commemorate the dead. Another reason is that he faces his own experience of delayed grief: last April, his father died of cancer and Goldstein was unable to arrange the funeral he would have wanted due to a raise. cases of COVID.

What remains is a lack of closure and a sense of isolation that he says is shared by the masses.

“We’re on the verge of a truly catastrophic lack of treatment,” Goldstein said in an interview. “And it’s hard not to look around and think that we’ve decided to give up what it really takes to process that amount of loss in the interest of moving on quickly, because it’s too sore.”

Goldstein started the account as a way to humanize the victims of a tragedy that was presented to the American public through a series of numbers – number of cases, days of incubation, death rate – but from which he shrank. familiar with the howl of ambulance sirens outside his home in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a fire scanner app that told him they were for people with breathing difficulties.

At the time, he thought he would likely spend a few months on the project before the pandemic subsided. Two years and two months later, the account has 150,000 followers, and writing the capsules is part of Goldstein’s morning routine, whether the disease claimed 5,077 lives the day before – as it would have done the February 4, 2021 — or 50.

He has conflicting feelings about the success of his digital graveyard. He never intended his project to become a clearinghouse for journalists seeking stories, or a lasting monument to the victims.

“The responsibility to keep the memory of these people alive and to tell the whole story of the extent of our loss from this pandemic — I wish it belonged somewhere else,” Goldstein said. “I’m glad, I find it very powerful that people have found Faces of COVID to be something they want to watch every day. But I don’t know if this was the right place for it.

Now, with widespread adoption of the vaccine and the prevalence of less lethal variants, daily death tolls are falling as summer approaches. People want closure, Goldstein says, especially if they haven’t been among the bereaved. And because much grief happens in private, even mourners have no idea of ​​the breadth and depth of the pain. But with 4 in 10 Americans knowing someone who died of COVID, grief is just below the surface everywhere you look.

He said he had no strong feelings about how the space to mourn the victims should be created – it could be a physical site like a memorial, or a date marking the start of the pandemic, or a more fully realized digital tribute. But without Something to mark the loss, he fears that the isolation that Americans have felt growing over the past two years – and the political division it fuels – will become a permanent feature of our society, and that the lessons and unity that we could have gotten from the pandemic go to waste instead.

“The one thing that brings us all together is that when we lose someone we love, it destroys us,” Goldstein said. “And the experience of grieving together, regardless of who the people are and where they’re from, I think that’s actually the kind of empathetic way of engaging with each other that’s part of the solution.”

If the challenges posed at the milestone of one million COVID deaths are reminiscent of the effort to commemorate the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, Goldstein was reluctant to indulge too much in comparison.

And he wasn’t optimistic that passing one million deaths would have more impact than passing 5,000 — or 500,000, for that matter.

But he offered a practical suggestion for overcoming the identifiable victim effect — human insensitivity to large numbers.

“If you use the brand’s one million confirmed COVID deaths as an opportunity to tell a story of a person with a name and a face, and a story that has been lost because of this pandemic,” Goldstein said, ” it will be a worthy reflection in a million.”

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