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Faces of COVID: Their Deaths Are Not Just News Statistics

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Cold, hard numbers

Every day newscasts are bombarding us with numbers on the pandemic. They throw at us numbers on cases, deaths, mortality rates, hospitalization rates, and all kinds of others. Each number is flashed with the same alarming urgency, and the numbers are numbing people out. Numbers are abstract, devoid of emotion. Hundreds of thousands have died from the disease, but 230,000 is just a statistic disconnected from the real faces of Covid.

Alex Goldstein is the founder of 90 West, a strategic communications firm based in Boston. His background is in storytelling. He had previously worked with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, where his job was to take abstract policy and bring it to people in a way that connected with them at an emotional level. Goldstein recalled one of the Governor’s quotes: “Politics only matters at the point where it touches people and it’s the same with policy.”

In many ways, the newscasts were failing to effectively communicate the scope of the devastation, Goldstein explained. People were stuck in isolation. And Covid statistics lacked a way to intimately engage with the death and all the loss. People knew bad things were happening. “But until it reaches your doorstep, it can be hard to make that real.”

Putting human faces to the numbers

Goldstein lives close to Boston. He was there when the Covid situation was spiraling out of control. For him, it was a couple of local stories written in local newspapers that put the human faces to the numbers. He saw how much more powerful pictures with names were than just cold statistics. The pandemic scared him. He foresaw that there would be first thousands, then tens of thousands, and later hundreds of thousands people dying. Every one of those people had dignity and deserved to be more than just a cold, hard statistic on a newscast. He started collecting stories from local news sites and sharing them on his own social media handles.

With the pandemic exploding, though, soon the volume of stories was getting so high that he felt it ought to be something people could opt into. And so he set up the @FacesOFCOVID account on Twitter.

Managing the Faces of Covid Twitter platform was a consuming task, both in terms of time and emotion. He had a full time job and would spend his early mornings and nights researching stories and looking for obituaries. In the early days, when thousands of people were dying each day in New York and his own city Boston, the volume of stories that he shared on the platform was “oppressive.” Many days he had 25 or 30 stories in a queue and a huge backlog.

His own community also suffered from a high percentage of Covid cases. “The devastation right outside the door was hard to ignore,” he said. With so many cases in his community, Goldstein started listening to the EMS scanner while doing his research. One morning he heard a call over the scanner that someone nearby had put in a call for shortness of breath. “And I look out the window and sure enough outside there’s an EMT trying to kick in the door of our neighbor. Now, they ended up having the wrong house and it was a couple houses down… but that’s how close this was. It was literally at our door. That was a dark couple of weeks.”

Their stories show the nation’s failure

Since that time, his Twitter platform has continued to grow and reach greater levels of visibility. To help handle the growth, Goldstein enlisted his friend Scott Zoback. Together, they have ridden the ebbs and the flow of the pandemic. After the Northeast’s cases subsided, stories popped up in Arizona, Florida, and Southern California. And now the most recent chapter of the pandemic is hitting really hard in rural America. He has stories in the queue from states that had never had stories before. There seems to be no end in sight.

Over this time, Goldstein has shared around 2700 stories of people who were lost to Covid. This is roughly 1% of the nation’s total loss. He has shared stories for every age, race, and ethnicity. “It does not fit anybody’s convenient little narrative,” he said. The most consistent thing that he learned from these stories was that the virus was inconsistent. He just recently shared a story of a healthy 19 year old basketball player from Appalachian State who died. On the other hand, 95 year old men with preexisting conditions have survived it.

It angers him that so many people have died. Other countries were able to navigate away from all the deaths and resume some semblance of normal lives, but America was not. He doesn’t think there is any legitimate argument for the level of transmission that the nation has right now. In this way, he explained, many of these deaths were preventable.

“I think there’s a lot of folks with blood on their hands,” Goldstein explained. “The people who have the most blood on their hands are those who deliberately sought to misinform people and make them unsafe. People who would say that this was a hoax. People who would put themselves in settings with people who were trying to take precautions when they themselves wouldn’t take a precaution.”

He has also seen that some communities have been hit a lot harder than others. “There is no question that this is eviscerating black and brown communities worse than the population at large.” He attributed their suffering to longstanding issues with income inequality and health care disparities. It didn’t surprise him. “We’ve spent decades in this country softening the ground so that a virus like this could do inexplicable harm in those communities.”

Giving outlets for community suffering

Goldstein’s commitment to bringing dignity to the dead and raising awareness has brought him more visibility. Families are now interacting with his platform more. People have been submitting stories of their loved ones unprompted.

“I think that for so many people, the process of mourning has been so isolating and a lot of the ceremony of that mourning that’s communal has been deferred to after the pandemic,” he explained. “People just want some kind of affirmation that this has happened, and that they’re not just alone coping with this.” The families have been really grateful to have some kind of public acknowledgement of their loss.

Goldstein believes that his Faces of Covid platform has given people an outlet that has been missing, but it was disconcerting that his platform was the only outlet that really existed. He didn’t feel that he could fill the void on his own. That there was a void was a bigger issue that really needed to be discussed.

The need for empathy-driven communication

The vast majority of his stories came from local news, Goldstein explained. By and large local news and journalists were doing the heaviest lifting around the storytelling of real people and the lives lost. “We’re living in a time when local journalism is really being hollowed out. From a financial perspective, most of these local newspapers, local TV affiliates are really struggling. And that’s been going on long before Covid. These reporters are essentially the critical link in a lot of storytelling because they can do it collectively at a scale… If they’re not telling these stories, there’s nothing for us to share.”

Local news has been dying out, and it has been replaced by national conglomerates. At the national level, though, journalism seems to be exclusively bogged down by abstractions, he said. They talk about big statistics, political rhetoric, and football. Then there’s the election.

“I think a lot of the storytelling that helps us be more empathetic, caring members of a community is lost at the national level. That, unfortunately, is a choice that news networks are making. It’s a choice that our President makes each day. It’s a choice that our policymakers make when they don’t center the storytelling of real people.”

Empathy-driven narratives are the only way the country is going to turn anything around, whether with the virus or politically, Goldstein said. People need to somehow reach the place where they feel they have responsibility for their community and those living next to them.

Another worrying issue that has increased his sense of responsibility has been the national disinformation campaign to minimize the pandemic. It has charged him with an acute need to accurately tell the stories to help actively fight the disinformation. There were people out there who were trying to pretend as if the Covid deaths had not occurred.

“The history of this moment is being written right now,” he explained. “It’s not going to be written in 10 years. It’s being written now by the stories that are told now. And that is particularly important in an environment where there are people deliberately trying to sow disinformation.”

Changing the national dialogue

Goldstein said he has seen some positive signs of change in the national dialogue. He explained that it has become a regular occurrence now that he would post a local story he found through their research on a Tuesday morning and then 48 hours later the story would pop up on CNN or on the Today show. He is not sure if he can take credit, but something was elevating those stories.

One of his stories even made its way all the way up to Kentucky Governor Bashir.  A newspaper reporter at the Louisville Courier Journal had engaged with the Faces of Covid account early on and appreciated what they were doing. She took the idea of Faces of Covid to her newspaper editor and said that she’d like to do more stories like them. The newspaper then gave Goldstein the green light to write a couple of the Faces of Covid type obituaries. The following day, during a press conference, Kentucky Governor Bashir referenced that story.

Goldstein believes it is important for government leaders to see deaths as not just statistics but as faces. “There is no question to me that it is easier and more effective to hold our government leaders accountable for what’s happening if we force them to look at the faces of the people we’re losing,” he said. “It is much easier to be cavalier about the virus if you have not read a story about a family that was ripped in half because of it.”

He continued, “I think that a lot of the people who have been most brash and dismissive are intentionally and willfully not engaging with those stories because it’s not politically expedient for them. And they might just have to look in the mirror at themselves and ask what kind of leader they are.”

Check out Alex Goldstein @FacesOFCOVID on Twitter.

At fuconomy, we strive to be another outlet for empathy-driven narratives. To read stories from Covid long-haulers read about Jeff F. who is still suffering six months after contracting the virus. Another story was shared with fuconomy by Audrey B., whose taste and smell has never returned.