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Why Covid Deaths Are Not Like Deaths from Other Causes

Have you thought to yourself, “More people die from cancer or heart attacks every year, so why are Covid deaths so noteworthy?” I’ll tell you why.

You never get used to it, seeing someone die. Nor should you.

People who make caring for the sick their life’s work know one day they will lose someone. Whether irreparable harm has befallen someone in a car crash or chemotherapy ceases to work in someone who should have had more years ahead than behind, we accept that not everyone can be healed — no matter how hard we try.

Comparing COVID-19 deaths to those from other causes reveals that someone has missed what distinguishes the two. When people die of heart attacks, cancer, car accidents, it is despite society doing its damnedest to prevent their deaths. We cannot save everyone; that much is true.

Still, you won’t find an honorable caregiver espousing, “Sometimes people die,” as they work. Even the surgeon who loses a 103-year-old patient on the operating table regrets not giving the person a little more time.

It is the loss of time, not deaths from other causes, that makes the tragedy.

Death has a way of hollowing your soul. It weighs you down, while inescapable mortality jeers at your efforts to hold on to someone — just a little while longer.

We work as hard as humanly possible to save people, even when it seems unlikely. Leaving no “what-ifs” is what allows us to persevere, to overcome the loss. People who have lost family to COVID-19 feel no less pain because other people have died for other reasons.

At age twelve, I stood at the foot of my mother’s grave and felt a pain that tore my life apart. The rest of the world did not exist; my world had ended. I know what it is to wonder if more could have been done, the regret that haunts you.

Trivializing or rationalizing these deaths further injures those who are already suffering, and the comparison denies the value of human life. Lives lost to COVID-19 differ from Americans dying in other ways because most other deaths happened despite precautions, despite legislation, preventative measures, treatment, and fighting to save that life.

When someone dies of heart disease, it will be despite exercise campaigns, yearly doctor’s visits that look for high blood pressure, medication, maybe surgeries. Still, we cannot prevent every death, despite all efforts. The loss still stings, but — imagine the feelings death would bring if it happened because the doctor did nothing.

Imagine if a person lost their life because a doctor saw high blood pressure and failed to act. Would you defend the doctor who neglected the patient, saying others have died for other reasons? The outcome could be the same, but what came before the death matters. Trust me when I say that it matters to those who were robbed of the people who should be here now.

People dying of other causes do nothing to bring 300,000 lives back, and they do nothing for those grieving:

  • children who will never see their father again;
  • a daughter who heard over the phone that her mother died suddenly and her father may not make it either; and
  • the husband and father who buried his wife and now raises their child alone.

How should they feel to find that those charged with protecting us failed to act and warnings went ignored? People grieving carry the weight of that.

Instead of hearing them, supporting them, and fighting to ensure this never happens again, we trivialize their loss. “People die,” you say. It’s not possible to know if we could have saved a life, but saying someone might have died anyway again misses the point.

The loss is exceptionally heartbreaking because we know proven-effective, early action could have saved most of the lives, but those charged with protecting us barely even tried seeming in some ways to gamble our lives — at least not until we’d squandered the future we might have had.

Then, rather than grasping the gravity of that failure, learning from it, and making an honorable address, all the grieving hear is excuse. Death will always sting, but it stings so much more when it’s possible those we lost might be here now.

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Public health biologist studying at Johns Hopkins | Science writer & artist | Views reflect me alone | Subscribe @

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