My friend, Peter (not his real name), was whisked into an ambulance near his home in northern Philippines and he died in the hospital days later from COVID-19. He never saw his family again. No visitors, including his family, were allowed to see him at the hospital, even as he died.
Joanie, his wife of many years, was quarantined along with her sons, having been exposed to the virus. They worried that Peter would wake up and think they had abandoned him. Even if doctors and nurses were there, Joanie surmises he died “alone.”
One of the scariest aspects about this virus is how it seems to feed on our deepest fears and emotions, like the basic desire to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death. Hospitals have closed their doors and COVID-19 patients are placed in isolation wards to prevent spread. One friend from the military said it is the medical version of solitary confinement. Priests have administered last rites over the phone while families sit helplessly at home, or sadly sometimes also in isolation somewhere away from other family members.
There is no closure, the way we go through in normal times. It’s only natural to want to be there in our loved one’s final moments. We want to bear witness to that process and say our last goodbyes. As funerals have been cancelled because of the virus, it can seem as if coronavirus victims simply vanish.
The devastating image of the lonely deaths of coronavirus patients in Italy, people who are strangers to me, makes me cry. As I think of Peter and talk to his shocked, frustrated, helpless wife, I think about how I would probably not come out of a similar situation half as composed as her. Even more than the virus itself, my worst fear is dying alone, towed away in a bag without a last hug or an “I love you” to a husband and family.
I cry for Peter, Joanie, and their sons. How do they now face the next days? Joanie deals with all the what-ifs and whys solo. You see, her husband was infected by an individual he had close contact with just days before he fell ill. At the time they met, the person was asymptomatic and then later developed mild symptoms, but never called Peter or other people in the same room to alert them. No contact tracing was started until after the individual was discharged after being admitted as a person under investigation (PUI) for COVID. The reason for no contact tracing? The individual waited for the test result, which actually came out positive.
Perhaps the people he left behind suffer more. Perhaps Peter sees, from wherever he is now, the outpouring of love and concern for Joanie and his sons. Perhaps Peter sees the anger of friends who love him for the total irresponsibility of an individual who dismissed all ethics and sensibility, for keeping silent until it was too late.
[As part of South Africa’s response to COVID-19, the country enacted regulations under the Disaster Management Act]: “Any person who intentionally exposes another person to COVID-19 may be prosecuted for an offence, including assault, attempted murder or murder.” I don’t mean to suggest that Peter’s unfortunate, sad episode turn into some legal battle. That will not bring back Peter. I only mean to underscore the seriousness of this pandemic.
For most of us, life today is anything but usual. For Joanie, her life is changed drastically, forever. She and her sons are still in isolation. They have not stopped crying. They were told that Peter shed a tear before his final breath. Joanie still wonders why her friend of many years kept silent. Peter did not have to die. The days went very quickly, very suddenly.
For Peter, there were no visitors, no final words.