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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

A Somber Anniversary with Unanswered Questions

March 16, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News Op-Ed

Last week was peak March madness in Philadelphia: near 80 one day and snowing hard a few days later. That chaotic unpredictability in the weather was an apt metaphor for what we are experiencing with COVID right now.

March 11 was the two-year anniversary of the day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sept. 28, 2020 one million deaths had been reported worldwide, with the U.S. and Brazil recording the most deaths, despite not being the most populous nations.

In Dec. 2020, three vaccines were authorized for emergency use in the U.S. A half million Americans had died and COVID-19 had leapt to the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

There are many stories to be told within that timeline, including the many outrageous lies and egregious failures of the Trump administration with regard to the pandemic. PGN charted a lot of it. I interviewed people with the first few cases of COVID in Philadelphia in April 2020. Soon after, I was reporting on how food insecurity had become rife in Philadelphia during the pandemic. And then it was how people with disabilities and chronic illnesses like HIV and cancer were deeply impacted by the pandemic and shut out of a healthcare system overwhelmed by the virus.

A year later as people began to be vaccinated and the death toll began to slowly lower, I examined how LGBTQ people had been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in employment, healthcare and economic stability.

The range and volume of stories was reminiscent of my earliest years as a reporter when I was writing about a different pandemic — AIDS — for both the gay and mainstream press, as well as living with the daily fear of who would be next to be diagnosed.

It’s been a sobering and at times terrifying two years as I hoped not to lose any family members or friends to the virus and hoped not to die myself.

Other reporters have also written about their COVID years. Two stories stood out among them. Dr. Zeynep Tufekci’s long, detailed and utterly devastating piece “How Millions of Lives Might Have Been Saved From Covid-19” laid out in succinct and painful detail the failures of the pandemic plan from the outset in places like the U.S. The clarity of her exposition was a gut-punch. So many deaths. So much long-COVID. It’s unfathomable that millions could have been saved.

The expose that was Tufekci’s story was made all the more vivid by the Washington Post editorial board’s piece March 13: “The pandemic toll may be three times greater than reported. That’s a lot of lost souls.”

Two new studies, one in the medical journal The Lancet and the other from The Economist revealed an almost incomprehensible fact from a nation and world already reeling from the PTSD of the losses of the past two years. “The research, examining the pandemic years 2020 and 2021, found that while the official death toll worldwide was 5.94 million due to covid-19, in fact 18.2 million people might have perished in the pandemic.”

Six million was already a brutally harsh number. Three times that was inconceivable.

And yet, there are the metrics to back up the claim. With those metrics come questions for which the answers have yet to be divined. These studies reveal in part how the world is divided sharply between the developed and developing world. As the story explains, “nearly 4 in 10 of the world’s deaths are unregistered, according to the World Health Organization; in Africa, only 10 percent of deaths are registered, compared to 98 percent in Europe and 91 percent in the Americas.”

These percentages reveal a staggering divide of haves and have nots — the story of the entire pandemic. The 54 countries of Africa comprise 16% of the world population at 1.4 billion. Yet only 10% of the deaths are registered. Was there a pandemic within a pandemic there? We will never know for sure.

What we do know — and what these many stories have explicated over the past two years — is that pandemics impact historically marginalized groups and countries more than those who are not. A vast percentage of queer and trans people were left devastated — hungry, homeless and without healthcare — by the pandemic. And while the West slowly began to recover throughout the past few months, that has not been true for developing countries or those with significant poverty, like India.

Also detailed is this: “COVID so flooded health-care systems that many people who suffered other sicknesses could not get treatment and died. They might have survived were it not for the pandemic. Taken all together, the new study declares, pandemic mortality ‘has been more devastating than the situation documented by official statistics.’”

What about the next wave? On March 16, one Washington Post headline read: “A COVID surge in western Europe has U.S. bracing for another wave” with the kicker: “Vaccines, natural immunity and relaxed restrictions make it difficult to predict how severe the next round of coronavirus will be.”

Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands are all reporting major new caseloads, while in the U.S. reports show the rise is beginning, following a rise in COVID detected in waste water.

Yet on March 15, the White House tweeted a thread about how without Congress authorizing more funding, there would be major consequences in efforts to combat COVID-19. Those would include lack of access to vaccines in the U.S. as well as having to “slash our efforts to increase vaccinations across the globe.”

Tufekci writes that we must learn “how to respond to future outbreaks, without defensively excusing what public health authorities and national leaders did this time.”

She adds, “We need to better understand how to rapidly incorporate evidence into scientific policy and to better understand human response to such major, complicated events.”

What was revealed for LGBTQ people is that poverty is another pandemic that has yet to be addressed. Within our own community we must work on providing safety nets for the large swath of the community who are poor or immunocompromised or lacking healthcare. Another surge is coming, and perhaps another pandemic. We can’t make up for all our losses of the past two years, but we can do our best to ensure we have protections in place for the most vulnerable when those new waves of illness hit.

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