Dying for answers

A friend is dying alone here in Anchorage at Providence Hospital as I write this. He doesn’t have COVID-19, but because of this pandemic, no friends or family can be there to hold his hand. An uncle died alone a few weeks back at an intensive care unit down in Texas from this. My aunt and cousins had to say goodbye to him over FaceTime. At the time of writing this, Alaska had 496 cases in one day and three deaths. In contrast, Vietnam, a country with a population of 95.5 million people, had zero new cases and zero deaths. Vietnam shares a border with China, where the virus originated, yet to date has had fewer infections or deaths than Alaska. Alaska, with a fraction of the population, has somehow managed to have three times as many deaths and 20 times the number of infected as Vietnam.

We can devise all the excuses we want or complain about how a comparison between Alaska and Vietnam somehow isn’t fair. I’ve heard the tired arguments about freedom this and socialism that. Clearly, arguing politics isn’t working. Here’s a country that we nearly wiped off the map not too long ago, and yet their elders, their sick, their loved ones are not dying alone in hospitals. Ours are. This is failure on an inhumane and catastrophic level.

The failure starts at the top, beginning with President Donald Trump and tumbling all the way down to you and me. We have prioritized business and leisure over our grandparents and neighbors. Put sports and public events over the safety and security of our communities and our nation. We argue over something as simple as wearing a mask. We’ve allowed a pandemic to become political. We somehow allowed the deaths of our fellow Americans to be its own source of division.

I’m pretty certain we can do better. We even have a few American examples of success against this virus. Take the NBA. How did the NBA pull off a successful season amid a pandemic? They made a collective decision to protect themselves. Everyone worked together to make that happen.

I refuse to believe that collectively, as Americans, we don’t have the ability to figure out how to allow select visitors into a hospital to say goodbye to our loved ones. I refuse to believe we don’t have the capacity or intelligence or humanity to demand action from our leaders and to do the right things ourselves. I know we can. We must. But what I worry about is that my friend dying in the hospital tonight alone is like our country on its own deathbed. Too many of us have lost the desire to be a nation that lives up to the promise of liberty and justice for all. The desire to welcome the tired, the poor. The desire to allow that lamp to the golden door for anyone other than ourselves.

And therein, my fellow Americans, lies the answer, perhaps the way out of this mess. It’s in the poem inscribed on the pedestal of Lady Liberty, a mighty woman with a torch, our beacon of hope. We need to once again become those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but keep the masses down to family size. Wear a mask. And yearn together for the freedom to breathe freely again when this is over. For our elders. Our kids. For the next one of our friends or family members who find themselves in the hospital. And for the future of our country on life support.

Don Rearden is a mask-wearing professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and author of several books, including a new poetry collection “Without A Paddle.”

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Don Rearden

Don Rearden, author of the novel "The Raven's Gift," lives and writes in Anchorage, but often pretends he's still back somewhere on the tundra outside of Bethel.