In Pandemic, How Do You Measure The Loss Of A Single Human Life?

Candles lit in a church.
Each statistic on COVID-19 deaths represents a unique human life.

When I worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau, I met regularly with a group of Catholic professionals to discuss how our faith influenced our work.

At one meeting, we were asked to imagine a scenario in which we were on a mountain climbing expedition that had required months of preparation. Not far from the summit, a member of the team breaks a leg and cannot continue to the top.

Would we accompany our injured companion back down mountain and abandon the climb? Or, would we leave the person behind and continue on to the the summit?

As I recall, everyone in our group favored bringing the injured person to safety.

This hypothetical ethics question comes back to me as momentum builds to reopen stores, restaurants and other businesses — despite a rising death toll from COVID-19.

Are 33 million unemployment applications and an economy in negative growth territory a more important measure than a single human life?

The U.S. death toll now stands at more than 77,000. This is not a mere statistic. These are 77,000 individuals. Each had a purpose. Each had a unique story.

I think of Mary Roman. Despite suffering from polio as a child, Mary won track and field medals later in life in the senior Olympics. She raised five boys and worked for 20 years as city clerk in Norwalk, CT.

She had a “can-do, never quit attitude,” her former boss said, and was practicing at a batting cage just weeks before she succumbed to the virus.

As a teen, Aldo Bazzarelli ran a barber shop in southern Italy. He emigrated to the United States and eventually opened Bazzarelli’s Restaurant in New Jersey where he served his mother’s marinara sauce and meats he butchered himself.

In 50 years as a restauranteur, Aldo never fired a single employee. He died a few days before Easter.

April Dunn was denied a high school diploma because of her developmental disabilities. She had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome and suffered from cerebral palsy.

As chair of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, she helped pass a law enabling people with disabilities to earn their diploma by alternative means.

Louisiana’s governor announced April’s death. April was 33.

These are just three of 77,000 stories. They remind us that no one’s life is “ordinary.”

“The very hairs of your head are all numbered,” Jesus tells us in the gospel of Luke. So let no one call it a “great success story” that more people haven’t died of the virus.

As the agitation to reopen the economy gains strength, we need to pause and weigh just what is at stake.

I certainly empathize with all the people who have lost their jobs or been furloughed -- those struggling to pay rent and put food on the table.

Still, given the continuing death toll, it perhaps makes more sense to hold off reopening offices and businesses for a while longer and seek ways of providing additional financial help to people who need it.

How? Perhaps redirect funds from some existing government programs to those who are struggling. Funds currently allocated for the impractical, unnecessary border wall might be a good place to start.

Most importantly, people like me have to step up and help. I’ve chosen to support a local food distribution organization in Bloomington-Normal, IL where I live called Feeding BN and Beyond, as well as the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders that serve refugees.

People I know are contributing in other ways — sewing and donating masks, volunteering at food banks, and shopping for neighbors who are at particular risk.

Over the longterm, we need to address the unequal distribution of wealth and services not just in this country, but, as Pope Francis has pointed out, across the globe. It is an injustice that allows the burden of this tragedy to fall disproportionately on the poor.

I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night so thankful that my husband and I have a roof over our heads, that we have food, and remain healthy.

This week, I intend to leave a candle burning in my home for those who suffer because of this crisis — and for Mary, Aldo, April and all the others who have died and will die before this moment ends.

It will serve as a reminder that every life has purpose. Every life is extraordinary.

Bags of food lined up for volunteers to give out at a food bank in Bloomington, Illinois. (Photo by Phani Aytam)
Bags of food lined up for volunteers to give out at a food bank in Bloomington, Illinois. (Photo by Phani Aytam)
Volunteers in my central Illinois community prepare bags of food for distribution at a local center. (Photo courtesy of Phani Aytam of Feeding BN and Beyond)

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.