She had underlying medical conditions…

See Disclaimer. Dedicated to health care workers, and other COVID-19 heroes. Also published in the Forest Grove News Times and select other local newspapers of the Pamplin Media Group–under the Editor’s chosen heading “A reflection on ‘underlying conditions’”

A few days back, the Oregon Health Authority announced that “Oregon’s eleventh COVID-19 death is a 69-year-old woman in Washington County, who tested positive on 3/15/2020, and died 3/25/2020 at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. She had underlying medical conditions.” While useful and objective, this type of language does not begin to capture the underlying human tragedy.

I don’t know this woman. But I know she was not much older than my wife or me. Possibly a wife, mother and grandmother—just like my wife. Likely someone who will be missed by family and friends. Someone who died untimely and alone. Someone whose absence will weigh heavily on someone else. Someone who is not, and should never be, just a number.

Like her, there will be many more deaths, perhaps as many as a few hundred thousand across the US. Each of these deaths matters. Each is personally agonizing. Each terrifyingly strains our health care system. Each impacts families, friends, and communities. Tragically, most of those deaths could have been avoided.

Viruses occasionally ‘jump’ from animals to humans. The jump might be unpreventable. But once the disease is detected in humans, we have a moral obligation as a society to react as fast as possible, in as informed and effective a manner as science and resources allow.

China and Europe, through their own tragedies, gave the US multiple weeks to react. Even a competent President, and a functioning Administration, could not have prevented the virus from reaching America. But they would have contained the spread, starting with clear, science-driven protocols for visitors and Americans returning from abroad. They would have increased the medical capability to respond, and the safety of the response. They would have led and informed our citizenry truthfully, without panic and with clarity.

A competent and decisive public health response from the Executive might or not have saved this particular 69-year old woman in Oregon. But it would have prevented the agony, and in so many cases the death, of a large percentage of the millions who did or will soon get sick. Perhaps you, me, or our families or neighbors.

A competent and decisive public health response would also have mitigated the economic chaos the country is plunged in. It would have lessened the many tragedies that will take place because people will lose their jobs, or go hungry, or fear going to the doctor for basic preventive care. It would have saved many of the small businesses, and non-profits, that will not weather the crisis. It would have reduced the deep disruptions in education that might forever alter promising lives.

Parts of our government have responded admirably, with knowledge and empathy, often under enormous pressure. Dr. Fauci has become a recognized example, in his attempt to keep us informed, safe and vigilant—despite a dangerously unfit and callous president. To Dr. Fauci and so many others at NIH, CDC and other federal agencies doing their jobs well, and tirelessly, we owe our appreciation.

In more ways than we can count, we also owe our deepest thanks and respect to those at the battle’s frontlines—as health care workers, janitors, first responders, grocery clerks, couriers, and so many more. They are heroes, whether by choice or necessity. Only through their courage will the majority of us survive, whether we ever get sick or not.

As most of us shelter in place, I try to envision the country and the world, once the worst of this crisis has passed. Will we truly learn our lesson? Will we create a more fair and sustainable society? Will we have more tolerance and empathy? Will our commonalities matter more than our differences? Will we better understand and respect nature and science? Will we have more economic equity? Will factors such as race, gender, religion and area codes no longer be barriers to individual and collective opportunity?

Will we prepare better for the next crisis? Will we transcend political divides? Will we realize that voting matters? Will we learn that knowledge, ethics and empathy are integral to effective leadership? Will we make better choices next time we vote?

Most of us did not know the 69-year old woman who died in Oregon on March 25. But we cannot let her become just a statistic, soon to be forgotten. We owe her, and so many others—victims and heroes alike—to create as fair and livable a world as we possibly can.

— Antonio Baptista


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