By Jonathan Kagan
On Sept. 18, my mother, Bebe Kagan, just two days shy of her 95th birthday, died of COVID-19 disease in an Iowa nursing home. Like many in her age group, Mom was a first-generation American. Her parents were immigrants from Ukraine and Moldova, who came to this country to escape persecution and seek opportunity.
Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mom studied hard in public school and was one of the first in her family to attend college. At age 19, she got cancer, and though cautioned against marriage, she married my dad and together they raised and educated seven children.
At 48, Mom’s cancer returned, this time necessitating amputation of her right leg. With three children still at home, she carried on as a homemaker, doing laundry, making dinner, reviewing homework and driving with her left foot.
My father died in 1994, and Mom continued to live a vibrant life in Florida until July of this year, when she relocated to Des Moines to live close to my sister. Just two months after her arrival, Mom was infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus by a nursing home staff member. A week later she was hospitalized, and five days later, she died.
The women in my mom’s family have a history of longevity, many living far into their 90s and a few past 100. Mom herself had no signs of imminent health risk. There is no doubt that COVID-19 killed her. And there’s every reason to believe that had Iowa enacted, supported and enforced safer public health measures, Mom’s risk of infection would have been reduced and she’d likely be alive today.
The record of public health decision-making during the pandemic in our country is well-documented, and while some leaders and jurisdictions have acted boldly and with prudence, many balked at stay-at-home orders, did not issue face mask mandates (despite evidence that masks work), and shunned social distancing recommendations, opening bars and restaurants which have repeatedly led to surges in COVID-19 case numbers and deaths.
The Talmud, the book of Jewish law, says that whoever saves one life, saves the entire world, and makes the point that one person can make a difference. For society to continue, selflessness and kindness must exist.
It is surely understandable that some view mask wearing as an unwelcome inconvenience because it can be. Not being able to gather with friends and family, fellow congregants and co-workers, in groups, as we used to, is a real loss for many of us. And, if there is just one thing that most Americans still have left in common these days, it’s that we hate having people telling us what to do (or shaming us for not doing).
But let’s not forget that we also have another thing in common — a very good and important thing: We accept some responsibility for one another’s safety. For instance, even though we might arrive at our destination sooner, we haven’t decided that stopping at a red light is an infringement on our liberties. We recognize that for all of us to be safe on the road, we each have to adhere to some rules.
In that same way, if each of us could think of and follow the proven COVID-19 safety practices (i.e., mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing), just like we stop for red lights, we could go a long way toward protecting both ourselves and others from sickness and death from COVID-19.
While several of our elected officials — with whom we may agree on many policy issues — have not exemplified the public health practices that we know save lives, we don’t have to defend or copy their unsafe behaviors. We can think for ourselves and separate our politics from our concepts of social responsibility in civil society. And in so doing, we can feel good knowing that we’re acting in accordance with our values, doing right by others and ourselves.
Bebe Kagan, a resilient and strong woman who had more life left in her, died alone in an Iowa nursing home. My mom was not a number, and neither were the other more than 210,000 American victims of COVID-19 to those who loved them. At the very least, we can honor and give sanctity to their lives by together doing all we can to prevent more sickness and death during this pandemic. Speaking for all of us who have been left behind to mourn, please consider your part in sparing any more families the pain and sorrow we endure.
Jonathan Kagan lives in Potomac, Maryland.