COVID-19 victims go unnamed in San Antonio

Robert Rivard

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Note: Editor Robert Rivard’s weekly column is now a twice-weekly column that will appear each Thursday and Sunday.

Do you want to know more about the lives of the 1,840 people in San Antonio who have died from COVID-19 since March? I certainly do.

Unfortunately, their stories are going largely untold. Readers ask why the San Antonio Report is not publishing profiles of those lost to the deadly coronavirus. The answer is simple: Local and state officials will not tell us who they are. Most families are left to grieve privately. Few contact the media. Yet telling the stories of lost loved ones is a time-honored way of remembering them. No one ever regrets a well-written obituary.

Our elected leaders, City staff, and the Metropolitan Health District staff are restricting the release of information about those who have died. instead, journalists have only scant numbers published on Metro Health’s online dashboard. We can tune in to the evening broadcasts when Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff offer periodic COVID-19 snapshots, but the briefings leave many questions unanswered. Concerns over privacy are reducing people to statistics, denying journalists and the public a comprehensive understanding of how the pandemic is spreading and killing people.

We get no names, no occupations, no exact ages, nothing about where the individuals lived, how they might have contracted the virus, when they contracted the virus, or what medical conditions might have contributed to their deaths.

San Antonio’s leaders are making a big mistake, in my opinion. Why protect the dead when the dead need no protection? By doing so, officials consign them to the forgotten.

The death count nationally has surpassed 400,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and globally more than 2 million, according to the World Health Organization. More than 300 Texans are dying every day.

Those numbers make San Antonio’s losses seem small in comparison, though I do not see it that way. I hear the 1,840 number and I see grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, solitary shut-ins, nursing home residents, countless people struggling with obesity, coronary disease, diabetes, and other conditions, and medical workers.

I try to see people, not numbers – people whose life stories are going untold. They are simply disappearing, reduced to a number on the COVID-19 dashboard and in the numbing flow of daily media reports. Publish a poignant remembrance of a friend or family member and readers respond.

The New York Times did not face such restrictions after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It assigned a team of reporters, photographers, and editors to learn all they could about the nearly 3,000 victims. By the completion of the Portraits of Grief project, 1,800 people had been profiled.

I knew one person who died in the twin towers that morning, but like many I read every one of the brief profiles, studied the photos, and used these human portraits to make sure Sept. 11 never became a statistic in my own memory, never just a number.

I do not pretend that the San Antonio Report, with our talented but modestly sized staff, could undertake the profiling of the 1,840 people who have died here. We would, however, do our best to make each week of the pandemic one in which we remember those who do not survive it.

There is a less emotional, more practical reason that it is a mistake to limit the data reaching the public realm. Going forward, researchers in many fields will want to use the data from this pandemic to understand how we can better defend ourselves against the next pandemic. Much of the data they seek might be beyond reach by then.

For most of us, the wait for vaccination could be months. Until then, the public health risk has never been higher, here or across the state and nation. People are dying. They deserve to be more than a number in our collective memory. Each victim is his or her own unique story, a story worth telling.

It is never too late for local leaders to reconsider their policies.


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