Italy coffins coronavirus
A local priest blesses coffins that have been piling up in a church due to a high number of deaths, before they are taken away by military trucks, as Italy struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Seriate, Italy March 28, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: As I left the Gulf News office on April 2, I remember hearing Tedros Adhanom, the WHO chief, saying that in the ‘next few days’ the COVID-19 pandemic would hit one million people. The figure that evening was 970,000. Yet, by the time I went to bed that night, it had crossed the 1 million mark. There was a name for it too – ‘grim milestone.’ The cases were surging despite desperate lockdowns and government measures.

Over the past few months, we have crossed many such ‘grim milestones’ – 100 deaths in a country, 1,000 deaths in a day in a single nation, 500,000 cases worldwide. We can decide on the milestones depending on how we calculate the figures.

A month ago, it was natural to have colleagues shouting out to me that one more person had died in Italy, or that there were 10 new cases of coronavirus in the UK. Now, that has stopped for two reasons. One, we work from home and there is no one to shout out to me. Second, figures like five, ten and fifteen have been relegated to the background in the light of the hundreds who are dying in Italy, Spain and the United States.

Which brings me to the question – Has COVID-19 reduced death to a number?

Gone are the days when I would memorise the numbers of those affected in Wuhan, the figures of those who had recovered and the people who had died in other cities – all because I had to present these statistics at the morning meeting.

Overwhelmed by figures

The numbers in their thousands and hundreds of thousands seem to spiral so fast these days that I have lost count. The news agencies compile figures and send them out every day – 2,345 deaths in Europe, 3,452 people affected in the US and so on. On paper they will remain but numbers.

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But pause to think for a while. Who are these people? For every well-known figure admitted to hospital, there are thousands who are gasping for breath, hoping to fight a virus that has brought the world to a standstill. And then there are thousands who have died fighting it – each with a home, a family, someone to weep, someone to reminisce about their life.

Behind every number lies a story, the story of someone like us – a person who went to school, played with his/her friends, earned a living, but then succumbed to an unseen enemy. It is the story of someone whose life was abruptly taken away, leaving a void in the lives of many.

Value of life

All my life I have read, studied and taught about the sanctity and value of life – how we are created unique and how there is a purpose for our existence. And as I see those numbers hurtling towards an unknown destination, I also realise the finiteness of man and fleeting nature of life.

Spain medical staff
Medical staff from Gregorio Maranon hospital react as neighbours applaud from their homes in support for healthcare workers, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Madrid, Spain, April 6, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

The pandemic has not even given people a chance to weep in peace. When a 92-year-old woman died in a Kerala hospital last week, she was buried in a couple of hours with just a handful of people around. When a young man from the Gulf returned home to take care of his father who was in hospital, little did he know that he would be quarantined and not allowed to attend his father’s funeral a couple of days later. Many around the world have not been able to travel to say their last goodbyes to their loved ones – many of whom have died of natural causes.

But all these pale in comparison to the images of hundreds of caskets waiting to be buried in Italy – with no loved one in sight, but only a distant sigh of helplessness.

Stories of hope

And amid these numbers of despondency, lie those of hope and encouragement, the stories of people who have recovered – a 93-year-old man and his 88-year-old wife in Kerala testing negative after being in quarantine, a rector in the US talking about beating the disease, and a pregnant woman in the UK fighting against the odds, to name a few.

In a world that is locked down and desperate to fight the spread of the coronavirus, it is easy to gloss over the ‘grim figures’. But I believe that life will be richer and fuller when we pause to read the stories behind the numbers – stories of the ones who fought valiantly, the ones who died fighting, and the ones who stood on the frontlines to fight for you and me.