I was listening to a radio report about the rollout of vaccines across America on the same day the COVID-19 death toll hit 499,000 and we all took a collective breath anticipating it clicking over to half a million.
Half a million deaths.
That’s more that all US military casualties in World War II.
Worldwide, the death toll is close to 2.5 million, so the US figure is one-fifth of all fatalities.
Who can measure that tsunami of grief! Who can estimate the long-term toll this pandemic will have, particularly on the poor, with the severe economic downturn predicted to follow?
And who can imagine the horror experienced by the frontline healthcare workers attending to this disaster. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, technicians, administrators, clerical staff, transportation officers, and maintenance workers – they are all showing signs of psychological trauma, together with symptoms of acute stress, vicarious traumatization, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
The American Journal of General Practice reports, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, HCWs have been exposed to high infection risks, mortality, moral dilemmas, excessive workloads and ongoing uncertainty about the pandemic wave. The entire experience can be traumatizing, with several studies showing an increased risk of acquiring a trauma or stress-related disorder.”
Fighting COVID-19 is brutal. Cardiologist Harlan Krumholz of Yale University says, “Its ferocity is breathtaking and humbling.”
Seattle nurse Karine Ingraham spoke to NPR about the grueling nature of her work with COVID-19 patients.
“It’s just a crazy world of extremes,” she says. “I’m listening to people say goodbye to their loved ones via Facetime. I’ve been doing that for a year and I still cry every time, but also sometimes I get to see people who leave the ICU.”
That’s why the radio report I listened to was so powerful. It was chronicling the early rounds of vaccinations of the elderly and frontline healthcare workers. In it, the presenter interviewed a nurse who was administering the jabs and she spoke of the unbelievable sense of relief she and her colleagues felt. She told the presenter about an 88-year-old woman who burst into tears after receiving the vaccine. When asked why she cried, the elderly woman explained how tightly wound her emotions had been, fearing that she too would contract the disease and die.
“Me and all my friends have just assumed we would get covid,” she said through her tears, “We’ve just been waiting for our number to come up.”
The vaccine jab was a signal to her that she’d made it. She’d dodged the bullet.
The vaccination nurse described another elderly patient who had answered “no” to all the questions on the pre-vaccination form, indicating she wasn’t allergic to any vaccines and didn’t have any cold or flu symptoms. After she received the needle, the old woman admitted she had had an anaphylactic reaction to a flu shot a year ago. When the nurse asked why she’d lied on the form, the patient meekly admitted she didn’t want to miss out on the COVID-19 vaccine. She reckoned anaphylaxis was better than coronavirus.
That’s how much terror is out there.
The radio reporter interviewed healthcare workers who spoke of the incredible relief they feel in knowing a vaccine is available to them. They too have carried an unspeakable burden of flirting with death every day they go to work.
It feels like the cavalry has arrived!
But one part of the radio program that interested me was the vaccine nurse describing what happened to patients after they’d received their jabs. After being given something to drink, they are walked down the hall from the clinic to a waiting room where they’re instructed to sit for a while in case they have any adverse reaction to the vaccine.
“What’s the mood like in that room?” the reporter asked her, expecting that it might be one of joyous celebration.
“It’s very quiet in the waiting room,” the nurse explained. “They’re all just looking at their cellphones.”
They’re all just looking at their cellphones? They’ve courted death and survived. They’ve been immersed in a sea of human suffering, as thousands of their peers have succumbed, gasping for breath. And after receiving the blessed relief of a COVID-19 vaccine they sit quietly in a medical waiting room staring at their phone?
“Welcome to the afterlife!” the reporter smirked.
Well, it’s not exactly the afterlife, but it is their second shot at life. Maybe they’re all texting their friends and relatives the good news. Maybe they don’t even have the emotional energy to celebrate. Who’s to say.
But the image of the afterlife being a sterile hospital waiting room full of people glued to their screens is a kind of distressing one. Shouldn’t it be a place of sheer relief, one of freedom and joy and new life?
Ari Honarvar, a creative activist in San Diego, says, “Perhaps the most radical act of resistance in the face of adversity is to live joyfully.”
That seems like a strange contradiction. To live joyfully in the midst of a pandemic? But I don’t think Honarvar is suggesting we whip up some kind of fake happiness when surrounded by grief and loss. Rather, we need to attend to the joy-bringing things like gratitude, peace and hope.
The tears of relief from that 88-year-old woman receiving the vaccine were an expression of joy. We do well to pay attention to them, before we head to the waiting room to look at our cellphone.
My friend (and co-author) Christiana Rice says, “Living joyfully feels almost contradictory to the grief we seek to inhabit. Yet the more I learn of the oceans of suffering, the more I understand the waves of joy. Joy is a holy resistance.”
I was visiting a church last Sunday and they included an open mic time during their service. They asked anyone who wanted to come to the front and share how they had been blessed that week or how they had blessed others. One man humbly shared how someone had generously given him enough money to relieve a family debt. A woman told us she fed all the judges at her kids’ surfing competition because they couldn’t leave their vantage point to get lunch. A young guy said he spontaneously taught a beginner at his indoor climbing center how to get started on the wall. In every case they were talking about offering or receiving relief.
The COVID-19 vaccines are a relief. They bring sheer joy at the end of a year of incalculable suffering. Sitting silently looking at your cellphone doesn’t feel like the right response.
Maybe we should resolve to pay attention to where the relief is. In the kindness of the nurse administering your vaccine. In the goodness of a neighbor’s gift. In the enjoyment of your healthy child playing on the beach. In the kindness of a stranger.
God’s love is like a vaccine. It’s an unspeakable relief from the death-dealing and sadness and injustice that besets our world. We need to look all the harder for God’s love. And that means taking your eyes off your cellphone more often.