Society is stuck in the early stages of grief over COVID-19

York Dispatch editorial board

Is this anger? Is this just the second stage of grief for the 1,000 lives lost just in York County to the pandemic, grief for the 5 million who have died globally and the 750,000 who have died nationally?

Many of us are through the first stage, denial, even though there are a shocking number who still call the coronavirus and COVID-19 a sham. And some have been through bargaining, the third stage, trying to find meaning in the ever growing numbers of deaths, and have hit the fourth stage, depression.

More:1,000 COVID deaths: 'You try not to become too numb to numbers — but I'm saddened.'

More:York County districts pass last year's COVID-19 total less than halfway through school year

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Surely no one has hit the final stage, acceptance, with its promise of plans for the future and moving on. As a society, we're stuck in the grieving process, as we have been for about 21 months.

Many of the grieving families know that it could have been different.

“If COVID-19 was not unleashed on America the way it was, my parents would be alive today," Tanya Dozier, of Shrewsbury, said. "If actions were taken sooner, if the vaccine was out sooner — my mom would still be alive. If it wasn’t politicized, my dad would be alive."

Dozier's mother died of COVID-19 in March, just before the vaccine became widely available. Her father died of COVID-19 in August after refusing to get the vaccine.

And there is the reason many of us are stuck in anger.

Vaccines have been available to any American adult who wants them for more than six months. They're proven to be safe and effective — not at stopping all coronavirus infections, but at keeping people from needing to be hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.

That's how vaccines work. They give the body an early warning that a disease is out there, giving the immune system a chance to make antibodies before an infection occurs. They make a previously deadly virus survivable.

Tanya Dozier holds a photo of her parents Wallace and Florence Young at her Shrewsbury Township home Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Both died after contracting COVID-19 last year. York County has surpassed the 1000 COVID-related deaths milestone. Bill Kalina photo

But less than half of York County residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health. Maybe some people don't have time to get the shots, or they're afraid side effects will make them sick and they'll miss work. 

But many of them are the stubborn, highly conservative, stereotypical Yorkers who have dug their heels in on this issue.

They're the ones who held rallies again Gov. Tom Wolf's lockdown orders in the spring of 2020 and who refused to wear masks in public. They're the ones who screamed at school boards over mask mandates and are still refusing to believe that COVID-19 is a dangerous disease.

They're stuck in the first stage of grief, denial. 

Many health care workers who have been on the front lines for almost two years now continue to fight misinformation every day.

Those who have the patience to try to educate patients who refuse to acknowledge a virus that is killing them and many others should be lauded as saints. Those of us who do not have that patience are stuck with anger at those who continue to push falsehoods on the public.

Then there are those who think they're in the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. Many Yorkers will say they have moved on and those of us who continue to bring up the daily new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are the ones who are holding everyone back.

They are wrong. None of us are there yet. None of us can get there until there are options in place, plans to choose and we are ready as a society to look ahead.

“You try not to become too numb to numbers — but I'm saddened.” said Dr. Matt Howie, director of the York City Health Bureau, of York County's 1,000 deaths milestone. “I'm trying to make my focus on preventing the next thousand."

The only way to do that is to push everyone past denial and anger and through the other stages of grief for the millions of lives lost and the two years that we have all spent in our own forms of pandemic lockdown, whether that has been limiting contact with other people or a mental lockdown of insisting that the pandemic isn't real despite the evidence before everyone's eyes.

We will never return to the before times. Now, we need to decide what the after times will look like.