The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the pandemic stories of everyday Americans, fear and grief feel fresh again

Tony Sizemore’s partner, Birdie Shelton, was the first person in Indiana to die of covid-19 last year. He wasn’t able to be with her in the hospital where she spent her final hours. (Chris Bergin for The Washington Post)

How does covid-19 kill? By overpowering our body’s immune system. The virus causes inflammation, scar tissue and fluid buildup in the lungs. We can’t absorb the oxygen we breathe, and our organs go into distress. The kidneys fail first. Then the liver. Then the brain. Hospital staff know the signs. Oxygen levels drop, then heart rate, then blood pressure. When the skin turns red and patchy, we have just hours left before we die.

But covid is killing us in another way, too. It has placed a massive strain not only on our physical immune system but on our psychological immune system as well. In the late 1990s, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues described “the artful methods by which the human mind ignores . . . information in its unending battle against the affective consequences of negative events.” To put it differently, when we are faced with a potentially overwhelming threat that seems impossible to bear, we find ways to feel better and mentally cope, even at the expense of our safety. How do we do this? We embrace ill-informed perspectives that could hurt us in the long run but make us feel happier right now. We blame others, to avoid accepting personal responsibility. We rationalize our choices. And when those tactics fail, our psychological immune system uses complacency, disinterest and disregard. We tune out. We ignore what hurts too much to pay attention to. We go numb.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we got scared about the rising death tolls and staggering infection counts. But bearing the weight of fear, anxiety and uncertainty for nearly two years is not sustainable. We’re tired of listening to repetitive statistics about cases and hospitalizations. Tired of thinking about death.

In “Voices From the Pandemic,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow awakens our psychological immune system. He gets us to feel again. Saslow interviewed several dozen Americans, transcribed and fact-checked their stories, and lightly edited the narratives. The oral histories he curated paint a vivid picture of how individuals endured the pandemic, and they often wrench at our heartstrings. The stories convey raw desperation, isolation, and physical and emotional suffering. They hurt to read.

Take Tony Sizemore and his partner, Birdie Shelton. We learn that Sizemore spent the last few hours of Shelton’s life trying to charge the battery on his flip phone, so he could download a videoconferencing app he didn’t know how to use, so he could see her face when deciding whether to take her off life support. Shelton died alone in the hospital — the first covid-19 death in Indiana — before Sizemore could figure it out.

We learn that firefighter Alfonzo May took his mother to a Detroit hospital. He spoke to her before she entered the doors, then never again. The hospital held her for two days postmortem to decontaminate her body from the virus, then lost track of its whereabouts for the next seven days because staffers were overwhelmed with the onslaught of bodies they suddenly had to process.

We read varied but converging accounts that speak to the seeming dispensability of the elderly. Their phoned pleas for help from inside nursing homes to the outside world went unanswered, literally. Their county ombudsman told them that “thirty new cases in a week isn’t really considered all that extreme.” They watched as body bags were carried out the front door of their facilities, down the sidewalks past their windows. Their humanity was stripped away by obituaries that defined them by their age, as if implying that they had lived enough life and it was their turn to go.

We grieve alongside the woman who was convinced that she killed her mother, by bringing the coronavirus into their multigenerational home by going to work to support their family.

We cry with Claudia Harvie, who watched her father die on a live stream to her laptop. The nurses, always wearing gloves for their protection, would touch him to let him know they were there. “One of the nurses,” Harvie says, “she was amazing. She would caress his hair and face. One night, she was holding his hand, and he brought it up to his mouth and gave it a little kiss. It was the last moment he seemed alive.” Harvie watched on the screen as her father’s breathing became more labored. His head jerked as he tried to get air, until finally his chest stopped moving. “The nurse said she could give us some time alone with his body to grieve. She walked out of the room, and we stayed there on the video, crying and telling stories,” Harvie recalls. “The nurse came back in after about an hour. She said she was going to clean him up and take away his body. She shut down the camera, and the screen went dark.”

Anthony Almojera is a seasoned New York paramedic. Before 2020, the most calls he saw in his career came on the day the twin towers fell, but he broke that record every day of the first two weeks of the pandemic. Sometimes 400 people were on hold with 911, waiting for his help. He knows intuitively what researchers have documented scientifically. “We’d rather pretend everything’s fine. We look the other way. . . . You’d rather ignore the whole thing and pretend you’re invincible.” But to make it through this, “you have to stay in the suffering. You can’t deny reality and turn the other way.”

There are a few brief moments in Saslow’s collection when the overwhelming emotions come from awe and gratitude rather than pain. Chris Anderson, a Florida election official, anticipated the ways poll workers and voters in his 80 precincts might be exposed to the virus, and he MacGyvered solutions. At polling stations, voters would normally all use the same stylus to check in electronically on a touch screen, setting themselves up for potential coronavirus exposure. So Anderson and his staff experimented with financially manageable ways to provide a disposable stylus to each voter. “Someone on my staff figured out that if you roll tinfoil around the stem of a Q-tip and dampen the tip with a sponge,” Anderson said, “that transfers the electricity to the touch screen, and it actually works out pretty well.” Anderson led others, including his family, in making more than 100,000 makeshift, single-use pens.

Burnell Cotlon, a grocery store owner in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, gave out more than $45,000 in store credit, even though that meant he fell three months behind on his mortgage. In response, people in New Orleans, hearing about his generosity, raised more than $500,000 for his store, money that Cotlon used to forgive his customers’ debts.

In his author’s note, Saslow writes that the stories offered him inspiration and perspective about how the pandemic was often overcome. They didn’t for me, because the world is still very much amid the global health crisis. The surge of infection and death continues. Perhaps, as we reflect on this blight in a decade’s time, the stories Saslow gathered will ground readers emotionally, evoking gratitude for the health and safety we’ll hopefully have in the future. But now, these stories terrify me. And that might be one of the greatest gifts this collection can offer us — the opportunity to feel what we have lately grown immune to feeling, and a compelling reason to do what we need to do to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe, healthy and alive.

Voices From the Pandemic

Americans Tell Their Stories of Crisis, Courage and Resilience

By Eli Saslow

220 pp. $27