As Foggy Bottom has returned to bustling with students gathering in Kogan Plaza, meeting for study groups and attending in-person classes, several who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 are still affected by the lasting tragedy of the public health crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic became the deadliest in United States history this fall, killing more than 750,000 people as of last week – a number surpassing the deaths from the 1918 influenza epidemic. Students felt the effects as they parted with their loved ones alone in a time of fear and uncertainty, without proper funerals and without a chance to say goodbye.
Read their stories here:
Sophomore Matt Kaplan was solving problems for his economics homework in his residence hall on Superbowl Sunday earlier this year when he received a text message from his dad asking him to FaceTime.
Kaplan said his dad tried to stay positive over the call as he told him that his grandfather had contracted the coronavirus. Kaplan said from Feb. 6 on, he thought this would be the end for his 88-year-old grandfather who already faced cancer and heart problems throughout his lifetime.
“From the sixth and beyond I was like ‘Well grandpa is just going to die,’” Kaplan said. “It’s weird when someone passes away, because there’s always a period where you just know it, and it’s just like, ‘When’s it going to happen?’”
Kaplan’s grandfather died of the coronavirus three days later on Feb. 9.
Kaplan said the day before his grandfather died, doctors thought he was fighting the virus and was “on the uphill.” He said the doctors even treated his grandfather with the experimental drug cocktail that doctors gave former President Donald Trump when he entered medical treatment for coronavirus.
“Everything was being done to keep him alive, but I think in the end, it was just too much,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said he didn’t accept his grandpa’s death until he attended his burial service in New York City, which only 25 close family and friends attended in accordance with the city’s coronavirus gathering guidelines. He said he distinctly remembers that even his grandpa’s dog started to whimper at the start of the service.
Kaplan, reflecting on his grandfather’s work ethic, said his grandpa was the first person to start importing tarot cards, small paper playing cards that each display a different lesson or belief, from Germany into the United States.
Kaplan said his grandpa started his own tarot company in 1968, which became the premier publisher of tarot in the world, and he wrote the first encyclopedia of tarot in 1978. He said his grandpa worked six days a week in the office, as well as all day on Sunday from home.
Kaplan said he remembers his grandpa at work dragging and lifting boxes for shipping at 85 years old.
“He didn’t think he was above anyone,” Kaplan said. “He truly treated everyone with such respect.”
Kaplan said his grandpa was born on April Fool’s day, and the tarot deck includes a fool’s card which represents “taking a leap of faith,” a motto that Kaplan’s grandpa lived by.
“That’s really how he lived his life,” Kaplan said. “Like he really was never negative, always positive, always.”
Kaplan said his fear of coronavirus has heightened following his grandpa’s death. He said people are “selfish” if they don’t get vaccinated, because they don’t think about how they can risk the life of someone else’s grandfather.
“This is going to be someone dying horribly,” Kaplan said. “This is not a way someone should die, alone in a hospital, with a feeding tube, scared out of their mind.”
Sophomore Ria Gupta lost five family members to coronavirus in India this past March.
Gupta said all five were extended family, and she found it stressful staying in the United States, far away from where she could help.
“I was losing multiple people a week, and so it was like the constant feeling of grief hearing ‘Oh yet another person wasn’t able to overcome it,’” Gupta said. “It feels horrible because I especially felt so guilty, because I hadn’t seen some of my relatives in so long.”
Gupta said of all her relatives who passed away, she was closest with her great uncle, a quiet person who always wanted her family to visit him and showed his love through gifts and food.
“Whenever we would go visit him, he would make sure there was a whole buffet of food out for us,” Gupta said. “He was the first relative that as soon as he heard that we were in India, would make sure that my mom came to visit him.”
Gupta said her great uncle contracted the virus in March, a week after he decided not to get the vaccine because India drastically exaggerated the number of individuals who were getting sick waiting in line for their dose.
“It was devastating to hear because this whole thing could have easily been avoided, but because of misinformation in the area and because of hesitancy and because of not a proper distribution of information, it caused my family so much pain,” Gupta said.
Within three weeks of getting diagnosed with the coronavirus, her great uncle passed away.
Gupta said her great uncle was in the hospital for six months because of organ failure before April 2020 when coronavirus spread to India. She said once hospitals flooded with people sick from coronavirus, the hospital sent her great uncle home with his nurse for about eight months until he started aspirating his feeding and breathing tubes and had to go back into the hospital.
Gupta said her great uncle either contracted coronavirus from the hospital once he re-entered or from his nurse.
“And after that, it was just downhill,” Gupta said.
Junior Vidhi Patel said her cousin twice-removed died from coronavirus two months ago after being placed on oxygen as his lungs failed at a hospital in Gujurat, India.
Patel said she used to visit her cousin in India and remembers tasting fresh crops and interacting with animals on his farm.
Patel said her cousin wasn’t vaccinated because the vaccine was still in short supply in India, especially in the villages where he lived.
Patel said she wishes she had spent more time with her cousin and his family members.
“We only spent some times in the passing when we would go to India, but I did really love them because they were such sweet people and I would have liked to go,” Patel said.
She said she wishes she had attended the funeral in India, where family members wear white clothes and ignite logs that surround the deceased person’s body to cremate it.
She said she is angry at her classmates who show up without masks or don’t wear them correctly over their nose because of their disregard for the public health risks associated with the pandemic.
“The worst part of being a person who’s been affected by a loss is seeing how carefree other people can be and knowing that they probably won’t even lose anyone to it,” Patel said.
She said people with inadequate health care access and underlying medical conditions like cancer will be most affected by those who decide to not wear masks. Patel said she reported one of her professors for not wearing his mask during class and not maintaining six feet of separation from his students.
“I really do hope a lot of people wake up to what they’re doing,” she said.
Cristina Stassis and Jackson Lanzer contributed reporting.