Dishonoring the Dead:

Denial in the Time of Pandemic
by John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS

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Pandemics are real. They have happened to human beings for as long as we have lived in groups larger than bands or clans. They have claimed the lives of billions of people. Sometimes history recounts them. Sometimes there is no written record. By now, everyone is familiar with the death toll of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which lasted for many years and killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. Any student of history will have some familiarity with the plagues of Europe, like the series of Bubonic Plagues that swept across Europe like wildfire killing as many as half of every living person in every hamlet, village, town, or city. (Yes, I said series. Plagues in Europe were common to every generation.) But there are epidemics of which most people know almost nothing. Did you know that at the moment of contact, when European explorers and settlers first migrated to the Americas, that there was an estimated 60 million Native people already living in North, South, and Central America? Most people imagine that the Americas were sparsely populated, that it was a mostly empty continent just waiting to be colonized, but scientists have recently estimated that was not the case. There were large cities with populations of upwards of 100,000 and more—cities with complex highway systems for bringing goods and people into the city centers. Just like today, there existed long distance trade routes.

I live about 200 miles away from the site of Cahokia, a Pre-Columbian Native American city that was situated a few miles from modern day East St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Founded around 1050 C.E., Cahokia’s population may have exceeded 40,000 during its heyday around 1300 C.E., making it about the same size as London was on the other side of the Atlantic.

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(Ruins of the lost Mayan city state of Palenque)

What happened to all those people, you ask? Epidemiologists have discovered that a great portion of that population was likely decimated by diseases carried into the New World by those first explorers and settlers, diseases for which the indigenous people had little or no immunity. Like the Bubonic Plague back in Europe, the diseases swept across the land from community to community. Long before European explorers made their way over rugged mountains and up headwaters of major rivers into the interior, the diseases had long since been there. The lost cities of Central and South America may have been abandoned due to recurring epidemics. Similar histories exist all over the world, wherever one group conquered a new land and its indigenous peoples. Diseases carried by Europeans did the same thing in Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Romans around the time of Christ had to deal with epidemics that lasted for as long as fifteen years, stopping commerce and trade, and killing millions. If the past teaches us anything, it is that plagues can last for a long time. Our modern technology—airplanes, railroads, cruise ships, automobiles—only accelerates the spread of the contagion. As an anthropologist, I can tell you that we are no different biologically than our ancestors hundreds and even thousands of years in the past. We can catch a disease and die from it just as they did. Our fancy cell phones and laptops don’t make us immune in the least. Viruses aren’t impressed by your new iPhone or your new high-definition flat-screen television.

As I said, hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of human beings have died—oftentimes excruciatingly and grotesquely—from plagues. They suffered greatly, physically and psychologically, up until their death. Their families watched in utter horror and helplessness. Sometimes, entire families died in a very short time. In my own family history, I know that some of my relatives watched as their entire family died before their eyes until they were the last ones left alive. I know because they shared their heartrending stories with me. I even wrote a book about their stories. The Great Death is based on stories my grandmother, her sister, my mentor, and other elders told me about what happened to them and their families when the Spanish Flu hit Alaska when they were young.

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(Corpse on a street in Guayaquil, Ecuador)

But lately, I’ve heard folks say that the Coronavirus Pandemic is a hoax; that’s it’s not real. They proclaim it’s all made up and that no one is actually dying from it. Mass graves are being filled in New York City (see photo at top of article). Funeral homes across America have backlogs of the dead stored in unrefrigerated moving trailers. In one city in Ecuador, corpses are left on the streets in the searing sun because the local government doesn’t know what to do with them (see photo above). The smell of death and decay permeates the city. When asked why the whole world would concoct such a hoax, in a display of profound ignorance and blind allegiance to a political party, these deniers declare that it’s some global ruse to hurt their chosen political leader’s re-election chances. Anyone who says such a thing dishonors the dead and their families who are suffering from the loss of a spouse or a child, a mother or father, grandparent, uncle or aunt, or a sibling. For the most part, individuals who die from Covid-19 are dying alone, because hospitals don’t want visitors to come into the hospitals out of fear that they might carry the virus into the building or carry it away and spread it community-wide after visiting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die alone crowded in a hospital corridor with other nameless patients because every room is full. I don’t want my last days to be so frightening, alien, and lonely. I’d want my wife and daughters to hold my hand and to tell me they love me. And I’d want to tell them how much I love them in return.

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(Coronavirus victim removed from a nursing home in America)

For me, this is all the more real because my own mother is in a nursing home. Around the world, nursing homes have been hit hard by the virus. By some reports, they account for a significant portion of the total deaths. My mother suffers from asthma and COPD. She’s frail and weighs around 87 pounds. If the Coronavirus sneaks past the main entrance, either by humans coming or going, or by delivery of food and mail and other essentials, my mother is unlikely to survive. No family may enter the building. I call my mother frequently to check on her and to inquire if she’s noticed any evidence that the virus has breached the main entrance. More than once, I’ve driven the 65 miles each way just to see her standing on the other side of the glass door, to see that she’s alive and well. If she contracts the virus, my mother will surely die alone, and I will undoubtedly wrestle with grief and guilt for the rest of my life. To say the pandemic is a hoax is to negate the death of all those human beings who have died alone and whose family never got to say goodbye. In some cases, families have been unable to claim the corpse of their loved one for funeral services. These families will suffer from lack of closure.

All this talk about fake news and hoaxes reminds me of the folks who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. An estimated six or seven million Jews—human beings—were murdered by the Nazis. They were lined up in front of mass graves and machine-gunned to death or shoved into fake showers where they were gassed to death, their corpses shoved into ovens to conceal the evidence of the atrocity. Although it would be impossible for me to say I understand what they must have gone through—for I have never experienced anything like what they went through—it is not difficult for me to imagine what their last moments must have been like as they stood there before the pit full of the naked and bloody bodies of people who had just been gunned down moments earlier. I can only imagine the sheer horror and terror of realizing what was about to befall them as the soldiers were ordered to raise their rifles and take aim. I can barely imagine what the moment must have been like as they stood naked in the showers while poisonous gas filled the room and people around them began to choke and die. Additionally, they must have worried about what has happened or will happen to their family, to their spouse and their children. They must have wondered why God did not stop what was happening. So much terror and horror heaped on top of horror. To deny the Holocaust ever happened is to negate the lives and the senseless murder of millions. Equally, to deny that the Coronavirus is real and deadly is to negate the deaths of everyone who has already succumbed to the virus and to the untold millions that may perish in the near future.

Postscript: A few days after I first posted this article, a friend of mine died from the virus. He was about ten years older than I am, and he had been working for years to get in better physical shape, walking miles around the aisles in the local grocery store where I always go to write in the morning. Afterwards,  he would go to the local YMCA to lift weights. Every day for four or five years, he’d take little breaks so we could sit and talk about politics or about whatever book project I was working on at the time. We also made a game of naming the song that was playing over the speakers. We’d also try to name the artist or group, and we offered up trivia related to the song, e.g. “Did you know that Barry Manilow’s song ‘Mandy’ was originally entitled “Brandy,” but another song hit the charts first with that title so he had to change it.” My friend was a good man with a wife, children, and grandchildren that he visited often. His funeral service is tomorrow. To deny that Covid-19 is a real danger to public health is to diminish his death and the suffering of his family. With the numbers of infections and deaths rising worldwide, it is likely that you will also lose someone in your life.


JS with maskDr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion, the world’s most comprehensive compassion movement. Aside from a PhD, he earned a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Healthcare Administration from the Texas A&M University System. He was Director of Health Education at Southcentral Foundation, part of the Alaska Native Medical Center complex in Anchorage, Alaska—one of the world’s preeminent institutions for indigenous healthcare. Dr. Smelcer is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of sayings to inspire compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, peace, and the spiritual life.

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