COVID-19 is now part of life, and it is still part of death. Statistics can tell us how many have died from infection with COVID-19, but they cannot tell us how many have actually died because COVID-19.
People died physically directly from COVID-19. It was and is a deadly virus. People also died physically from the effects – they didn’t have COVID-19, but they died from it because they were isolated, alone and cut off from social contact and interaction.
In infants, we call these deaths “failure to thrive.” In adults we don’t have a name for it, but it’s exactly the same. For infants, not holding, not feeding, the lack of social contacts and the lack of support in the family leads to a lack of zest for life. Eventually food will not nourish them because it has nothing to do with nurturing.
What does this “failure to thrive” look like in adults? We’ll keep some common stereotypes in mind. We will think of street people, people suffering from acute mental illness or poverty, people suffering from the spectrum of social phobias – and yes, many suffering from these circumstances are at risk of death by failure to thrive.
During COVID-19 there were others who were very financially secure, many who contributed to our communities. Many have great skills and gifts to offer, but as COVID-19 forces us all behind closed doors, some people are being forgotten.
Who are these people? Mostly they were and are the people who live alone. Not always in separate houses; some in apartments and condominiums. The social connections of everyday life simply dried up and disappeared. No more dinners, no more coffee groups, no more education groups, no more fundraisers or purpose-driven dinners, no more theaters or movies, no more libraries, no more art galleries.
The list could go on, but honestly, the picture painted is a locked door. There’s no reason to go outside.
This happened in COVID-19, and it happened before the virus and will continue after it. These are not friendless people, but people who live alone. They are often seniors, but not always. Quite simply, these are people who are not on the daily agenda to check regularly.
So time goes by and someone says, “Have you spoken to Fred?” Later, someone else says, “I haven’t seen Fred in a while.” Another comments, “You know, I called Fred the other day and he sounded so different. ‘ It takes a while for someone to get to the point where they say, ‘Maybe we should go and see each other.’
Ask an emergency responder and they might tell you that by then it might be too late. In the face of war, pandemics and inflation, this is no small concern. It is an unnecessary death by isolation, it is a failure to thrive, and it amounts to criminal negligence on our part.
The will to live is a fragile structure, and even the loner needs social contacts. In utter isolation we wither and die. Even prisoners are checked by guards and the check is more frequent when they are in solitary confinement because we know how life threatening isolation can be. It is dangerous mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Think about each of these words and imagine what being “cut off” does to that aspect of self.
Life is now returning to what we call ‘normal’, which means busy. Busy is what we do to make a living. Busyness that leads to overlooking others is a disease in itself. Until COVID-19 shut us down, a few people living alone were busy. Some did well with technology and other forms of connection; some don’t.
This is not a condemnation or accusation, but rather a call for awareness and action. Death by failure to thrive is a tragedy for all of us and doesn’t have to happen.
As COVID-19 transitions from pandemic to endemic, I have facilitated many celebrations of life and traditional funerals. People have witnessed the deaths of many people they loved and these celebrations have shown that love. But how do we celebrate the death of someone who couldn’t feel, see or share love?
We feel so betrayed and they felt so alone, so cut off that they lost the ability and maybe even the will to reach us. Failure to thrive affects us all, because all too often guilt and grief go together.
Karen Toole is a pastor of North-End Winnipegger, United Church, community educator a former Faith Page columnist in the Free Press.