Survivor stories: Death, loss and selflessness during the pandemic
By Jacqueline Cutler / New York Daily News
Those days when the word corona made you think beer or crown feel like long-gone innocence.
So much happened during these 18 months that how we’re reacting to different phases of the pandemic and how survivors are coping are worth documenting.
“Voices from the Pandemic: Americans Tell Their Stories of Crisis, Courage and Resilience” is a powerful reflection on the last year and a half. Pulitzer-winning journalist Eli Saslow has managed the near-impossible: He makes you want to read more about the pandemic.
This doesn’t bother with maps of where the virus is spiking or death tolls. It can’t be of the moment. Instead, it’s the story of all of us — those who have taken every precaution and those who refused to acknowledge COVID’s deadly path.
Done in the style of the late great Studs Terkel, these are oral histories as the history is happening. Each section has people sharing their stories in their words.
Sure, it’s edited for clarity, but there’s no spin. It’s unfailingly fair: When a tenant recounts her eviction, the next entry is from a landlord who exhausted her savings trying to not evict people.
Even though we think we know the stories of the pandemic, we can’t – at least not all of them. And we never may. Saslow carefully selected a cross-section of people; some who have since died, some who recovered, some who never may.
Saslow reminds us of the first whisperings. On Jan. 4, 2020, there was news about what was considered a pneumonia outbreak in China. Five weeks later, it had a name, COVID-19.
A month later, life as we knew it stopped.
“She’s dead, and I’m quarantined,” Tony Sizemore, of Indianapolis, says of his love, Birdie Shelton, in the first entry from March 2020. “That’s how the story ends. I keep going back over it in loops, trying to find a way to sweeten it, but nothing changes the facts. I wasn’t there with her at the end. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I don’t even know where her body is right now, or if the only thing that’s left is her ashes.”
With that gut-wrenching opening, we’re off. We meet dozens of people we’ve never heard of, which is precisely the point. Everyone knew when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were among the first celebrities to get COVID.
But this book introduces Bruce MacGillis, a man in an Ohio nursing home. He refused to let temp workers who couldn’t wear masks correctly get near him and isolated himself until he was vaccinated.
“I’m a hard-ass about this stuff, and I’m not even a little bit sorry,” he told Saslow. “I can’t afford to take chances.”
Some who tell their stories are the superheroes of the pandemic.
A shift leader of a nursing team in Detroit, Sal Hadwan, recounts insane shifts. While we celebrate and honor health care workers – now more than ever – the dire conditions they were working under were horrifying. Remember garbage bags serving as protective gear? Some had one mask per shift.
In April 2020, Hadwan said: “We’re basically handling the most severe cases in the ER, which is not our training. These nurses don’t have a second to relax. You’ve got one patient’s oxygen running out and another whose heart rate is going wild. All you can do is try your best to hear the alarms and then sprint as fast as you can from one emergency to the next. You hope you make it in time. Sometimes you don’t.”
Naturally, it’s bleak. But there are also stories of humanity at its best.
Burnell Cotlon of New Orleans (pictured above) turned his grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward into a food pantry. He couldn’t afford to, but some of his neighbors couldn’t afford to eat.
As he said in April 2020, “Last week, I caught a lady in the back of the store stuffing things into her purse. We don’t really have shoplifters here.”
He knows the customers in his two-aisle market. The woman swiped a carton of eggs, hot dogs, and candy bars.
“She started crying,” Cotlon told Saslow. “She said she had three kids, and her man had lost his job, and they had nothing to eat and no place to go. Maybe it was a lie. I don’t know. But who’s making up stories for seven or eight dollars
of groceries? She was telling me, ‘Please, please, I’m begging you. How are we supposed to eat?’ I stood there for a minute and thought about it, and what am I going to do?”
Colton started running tabs – for the first time. He went from having zero customers on credit to 62 within a month. He kept giving to neighbors until he fell three months behind on his mortgage.
In a postscript, Saslow adds that when Colton’s generosity became known, online fundraisers brought in $500,000. Naturally, he put it to great use: forgiving his customers’ debt and beginning construction on a subsidized apartment building. “He also gave out free school supplies and turned his store into a free vaccination site for the community.”
Every page in this is sobering. Every story chilling, relatable, and absolutely forthright.
For those who lost their jobs and who were living paycheck-to-paycheck, rent became impossible to pay. To lose your job, your health, your relatives and now your home is unbearable. Granted, the news often focuses on the tenants, while many of us assume landlords only take time out from counting their money to harass tenants.
It’s a lot easier to feel for the tenants, who are doing all they can.
Saslow interviewed Tusdae Barr, evicted during the pandemic. Although money was tight before COVID, Barr was making rent with everyone in her family chipping in — until work dried up. Barr eventually found herself ousted, then in cheap motels, and finally with relatives.
If you never thought you could sympathize with a landlord, meet Jayne Rocco of Deland, Fla. She became a landlord 25 years ago when broke, reeling from a divorce. Rocco found a lender, bought and fixed up a cheap house, then flipped it and bought two houses. She continued doing this until she had 10 properties, none fancy. Rocco’s profit was about $40,000 a year pre-pandemic.
Trying to help her tenants and pay her bills, Rocco exhausted her savings. She’s still trying, and still has troubles. With some of the people featured, their troubles are financial. For some, such as a newlywed, former athlete Kaitlin Denis, of Chicago, the effects of long-term COVID, are medical. She’s drained and can barely get out of bed.
And some trying to help, such as Amber Elliot, county health director in Farmington, Mo., found herself threatened with anti-vaxxers posting photos of her kids online.
The book ends with a leading voice of science. Stanley Plotkin, 88, a virologist, “developed the rubella vaccine that’s now in standard use throughout the world.” He’s worked on other life-saving vaccines and consults for the World Health Organization.
“Parents can expect their children to grow up, and that’s a relatively new thing,” Plotkin told Saslow in January. “It shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nothing can.
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