Across the world, the devastation caused by the coronavirus is told in the voices of those left behind.
In England, the brother of Amged El-Hawrani, a Sudanese immigrant who became a successful doctor, says a rock of the family has been lost. “We would all lean on him very heavily.”
In the United States, the son of Isaiah Kuperstein says although his dad studied one of humanity’s darkest chapters, the Holocaust, he was a light to those around him. “Every picture that I see now makes me sad, but I see this twinkle in his eyes.”
In Brazil, family worry about the future of baby Alice, whose mother, 28-year-old Rafaela de Jesus Silva, died a week after giving birth. “My heart is broken,” said Rafaela’s aunt. “Her child will never even sit on her lap.”
Many countries have stories like these. They are about lives well lived or cut short, of love, of perseverance, of heartache, of dancing, of laughing and being silly, of sacrifice and bucket lists, and for loved ones left behind, being forced to contemplate a starkly different future after life was upended by an enemy the eye can’t see.
These are some of the stories that Associated Press journalists around the world are working to capture in an ongoing series called “Lives Lost.” Each story is told individually, often with audio remembrances and photos from family members, and presented as a collection in this website.
They are the stories of ordinary people who have sometimes done extraordinary things, such as Joanne Mellady, who after a double lung transplant in her 50s began hang gliding, skiing, skateboarding and traveling the world. Or Arie Even, a native of Hungary who survived the Holocaust after his father was sent to a concentration camp, eventually building a successful life and family in Israel.
Regardless of professional accomplishments, which are always fleeting, they are people who left a permanent mark.
They are people like Viviane Bouculat, the owner of Paris bistro l’Annexe, a close friend to so many patrons and life of the party (as evidence by video of her dancing in the kitchen with a mop on her head). Or Mary Louise Brown Morgan, a Louisiana woman who kept one of the best gardens in her town and was so devoted to her faith that she tithed even when that money was needed to eat. Or Wu Chuanyong, a family patriarch from Wuhan, China, who taught his son the virtues of frugality after being part of a mandatory rural work program by Mao Zedong.
The focus on regular people, many of whom have lived through some of recent history’s most momentous times, is to put a face on the growing number of dead, nearly 300,000 and counting. It is also to help readers see similarities in how countries are being impacted and how different cultures and religions view death differently.
In the end, our similarities far outweigh the differences.
“In tragedies, we talk a lot about the people who died and the effect on people who knew them,” says Stan Goldberg, an author of several books dealing with life’s difficult questions, including death. “It’s not just the death of one person, but the loss of expectations for the people around them.”
Many people are dying alone, cut off from family so as not to spread the virus, and normal end-of-life rituals often give way to hasty burials and cremations without ceremonies.
“Whether we choose a fire or the open ground or the sea, the fact that we usually get a choice in the matter is a real luxury,” says Thomas Lynch, a funeral director, poet and essayist.
“We are beginning to understand now how important it is for the living to get the dead where they need to go,” he says.
Coronavirus is hardly the first widespread human tragedy, though it’s the first in a long time to impact the entire world in similar ways at the same time. In the decades to come, many countries may consider how to remember the victims of COVID-19, though if history is a guide, many probably won’t; Memorials to soldiers who died during wars the last century are much more common than memorials to the 1918 flu, which killed millions around the world, or any other pandemic the last 100 years.
Maybe that is because it’s easier, even preferable, to remember people who died doing something visibly momentous — something that somehow feels larger — instead of being overcome by respiratory distress.
“The records you are keeping will be a resource for historians,” says Mark Honigsbaum, a medical historian and author of several books on pandemics. “One of the stories we are going to tell is of the tremendous suffering and sacrifice.”
Sacrifice is a repeated theme of Lives Lost, particularly among health care workers who died taking risks to treat suffering coronavirus patients. They include Dr. Roberto Stella in Italy, who trained a generation of general practitioners in Lombardy, even organizing a course on COVID-19 before becoming the first Italian doctor to die after attending to patients. Or Dr. Ahmed el-Lawah, a pillar of the community in the Egyptian city of Port Said and a father figure beyond his family, who also died after getting infected by a patient.
When this pandemic is over, and life returns to normal, the biggest scar will be all the lives lost. Regardless of how societies collectively remember in the future, for families and friends losing loved ones, the pain is now.