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21 Oct 2020 6:05
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  •   Home > News > International

    Coronavirus has officially killed 200,000 Americans. For those left behind, there is grief, shock and rage

    At the beginning of the pandemic, top US diseases expert Anthony Fauci warned coronavirus could kill as many as 200,000 Americans. Five months later, with the country's outbreak still raging, the United States has passed that milestone.

    How do you visualise 200,000 dead?

    It's two Melbourne cricket grounds filled to capacity, four Sydney cricket grounds. It is bodies end to end along the road all the way from Washington to New York.

    As horrifying as those images are, none tell you of the deep, aching pain and anger of those whose loved ones have vanished.

    Multiply that by extended family, friends, workmates, neighbours and acquaintances and millions of Americans have been directly touched by that loss.

    Sondra Wolfe lost her husband Mike. He was buried just a week ago.

    She shows me all the spots in their Iowa home that he loved most.

    "This is the window where he does his birdwatch, the fireplace where we spent many, many happy evenings with the fire going," she says.

    But now there's an American flag in the living room where Sandra and Mike had planned to grow old together.

    "This flag was presented to me at his service by the National of the American Legion," she says.

    She stops at Mike's favourite chair where his grandchildren would sit and talk and play with "Papa".

    "He'll never come home and sit across from me and [talk] about our day ever again," she says.

    Mike Wolfe was 66 and had done everything right — or so he thought.

    Despite isolating with his wife for months at home, he had decided it was time to go back to work.

    Both he and his wife got sick with COVID-19.

    He was taken to hospital, and his family planned a welcome home celebration. But he died in hospital, one of hundreds of Americans who died that same day from the virus.

    "We have five children and 19 grandchildren and they've lost their father. They've lost their papa. We've got some that will never have any memories. They're too little,"' she tells me tearfully.

    Sondra tells me Mike used to grow his beard every year so he could play Santa to the local children. But this Christmas will be hard to bear.

    "I'll be home in the house, looking at an empty chair, empty driveway. He's supposed to be home with me. And he'll never be home again," she says.

    Could America's devastating toll have been avoided?

    Sondra's palpable grief is matched by an anger with a president she says failed to protect her husband and her nation.

    "It makes me angry. [Donald Trump is] supposed to be our leader. He's supposed to take take care of us," she says.

    "This isn't about politics or the standings in the polls and the election in November. This is about people's lives. It's not a political debate. It's a health crisis and people are dying. And it's just frustrating."

    Sondra is wearing a mask with "Team Papa" written on it as a way of honouring her husband. It covers her facial expressions, yet her eyes flash with a fierce anger.

    "The doctors and scientists were not listened to, and I think a stronger reaction from the beginning would have prevented a lot of death. I would still have my husband," she says.

    But Mr Trump has defended his administration's handling of the pandemic.

    He says without his decisive actions like swiftly closing borders and ramping up testing, the death toll would have been as high as 2.5 million.

    "We did a great job except public relations-wise. My people got outplayed," he said in an interview on September 17.

    "We did a phenomenal job on coronavirus, a phenomenal job."

    A heroic health worker is among those lost

    It's an assessment not shared by New York family, Fiana and Charlie Tulip, whose lives have forever been changed by the virus.

    Both lost their jobs because of the pandemic and that hastened their decision to sell their apartment.

    They could have coped with that, but not the death of Fiana's mother living in far away Texas.

    Isabelle Papadimitriou was a respiratory therapist helping COVID-19 patients survive the virus. But she could not save herself.

    Only recently, Fiana found out her mother had been doing extra shifts at the hospital to support the medial team, but also to help her daughter financially.

    "She sent a text to her colleague and said 'I feel bad, I can't wait to get back to help you all out,'" Fiana says.

    "But also in those messages, she said, 'I want to help my daughter and her husband because they both lost their job to COVID-19. So I'm picking up the extra shifts.'"

    Isabelle had never given money to the Tulips, but she had sent necessities like toilet paper and paper towels.

    "In fact, we got packages after she died. And it broke my heart because I can't help but think maybe that extra shift was the one where she caught COVID-19," Fiana says.

    That heartbreak turns to a visceral anger when she talks about journalist Bob Woodward's tapes that recorded Mr Trump saying he knew back in January how deadly the virus was and that he was "playing it down" to avoid panic.

    The President has since said his comments have been mischaracterised, and he was trying to project "calm" in a time of crisis.

    But it's not enough for Fiana.

    "This past week was a very hard week with the news about the Woodward tapes. It was like my mom had died all over again," she says.

    "And in speaking with other people who had lost family members to COVID-19, they felt the same thing. Everybody was just a little more depressed than we were before."

    When asked if she feels the Trump administration is partly culpable for her mother's death, Fiana is firm.

    "Trump is responsible for my mother's death," she says.

    "This pandemic could have been controlled. He downplayed it. He called it a hoax. He refused to wear a mask. He led people into danger. People follow leaders."

    An American dies every 90 seconds. Mark was just one of them

    Mark Urquiza was one of those who chose to follow Mr Trump's initial reassurances that coronavirus was like a flu and would "magically go away".

    He had been a strong supporter of the President. But before he died of COVID-19 in an Arizona hospital, he told his daughter Kristin he felt misled and betrayed.

    "I'm overwhelmed with grief. It didn't need to be this way," Kristin says.

    "The Federal Government knew about the threat and made decisions to lie to the American public about how to handle this pandemic and as a result, 200,000 people have been wiped out from the face of this earth."

    Kristin Urquiza gives out a little chuckle as she shuffles through a box of photos of her father to show me the man she misses so much.

    "This is actually one of my favourite pictures of my dad," she she says wistfully.

    "His birthday was his most favourite times of the year. We always had big parties and celebrations for him. And I'm similar. I like to celebrate my birthday too."

    August 13 should have been Mark Urquiza's birthday, but for the first time in Kirstin's life, there could be no party for her father.

    "It's particularly hard at night time, I have trouble sleeping," she says.

    "My mind races with thoughts about my dad, knowing how he was so scared, and those last few days alone.

    "[It's] just a type of passing I would not wish upon my worst enemy."

    Kirstin Urquiza channelled that grief and anger into a website she founded, Marked By COVID, where grieving families vent their frustrations and put faces to some of the 200,000 victims.

    She has campaigned against Donald Trump's re-election and spoke in support of Democratic challenger Joe Biden's bid for the presidency at the Democratic National Convention.

    At the current rate, another American dies from COVID-19 every 90 seconds.

    Mr Trump says the country has turned a corner, but too many Americans remain on a dangerous and dark road.

    Beyond the politics, the questions of culpability and the anger is a deep inconsolable sadness.

    The death toll in the US could more than double by Christmas, according to one prediction from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

    That would mean at least another 200,000 families mourning their loves ones and asking the question: Was it in any way avoidable?

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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