250000,” Matthew Bellemare

November 18, 2020; New York Times

Back around Memorial Day, the nation’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 100,000.  At the time, NPQ highlighted a few civil society leaders who were among that number.  Now, less than six months later, the nation has passed another grim milestone, as the death toll from the novel coronavirus has risen above 250,000.

With virus spread accelerating, we can expect the death toll to continue to rise. The New York Times reports a 38 percent rise in deaths over the past 14 days, with an estimated 76,958 hospitalized—itself a 48-percent rise over two weeks ago. Neil MacFarquhar adds, “Experts predict that the country could soon be reporting 2,000 deaths a day or more, matching or exceeding the spring peak, and that 100,000 to 200,000 more Americans could die in the coming months.”

The New York Times also has a page titled Those We Lost, with obituaries of some of those who have lost their lives due to the virus, including many leaders in civil society.  We highlight a few of them here:

Choua Yang fled Laos as a child in 1975. Three years later, her family was granted asylum in the US and came to Minnesota. After working in the Minneapolis public school district, she and her husband, also a Hmong refugee, founded Prairie Seeds Academy in Minneapolis, a charter school centered on Hmong language, culture, and heritage. Yang was principal there and helped grow the school to the point where it enrolled 750 students. In 2017, she received recognition from a national Hmong-American organization. She died of COVID-19 at the age of 53 on October 9th.

Bryan Fonseca co-founded the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis in 1983 and led it for 35 years. He left the theater in 2018 due to a board dispute, writes Sarah Bahr of the Times, and “started the Fonseca Theatre Company, a grassroots theater in a working-class neighborhood on the city’s west side. The company champions work by writers of color and has a largely nonwhite staff.”

Jordan Flores Schwartz, his company’s associate producing director, says, “He was a force for good in the lives of many, many people.”

In July, Fonseca staged a live, physically distanced production in the theater’s parking lot of Idris Goodwin’s Hype Man: A Break Beat Play, which centers on the police shooting of an unarmed young Black man.  In August, he staged a second outdoor production, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies.  Fonseca died of COVID-19 on September 16th at the age of 65.

John Eric Swing spent the last five years of his life working, writes John Leland of the Times, helping restaurants and other small businesses in the Filipino community in Los Angeles through a nonprofit called Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, or SIPA. In April 2020, he became the organization’s executive director. He contracted the novel coronavirus and died in the hospital on June 28th; the immediate cause of death was pneumonia and stroke. He was 48.

“We’ve lost a community builder at a time when we need community builders,” said Mitch O’Farrell, a Los Angeles City Council member. Jessica del Mundo, executive secretary of the board at SIPA, says, “He always said he believed he worked in the culture of changing lives, that to him was what the nonprofit world meant. It wasn’t just about uplifting Filipinos.”

Swing died with plans unrealized, including a workshop to address anti-Black stereotypes among Filipinos and a plan to redevelop SIPA’s headquarters to include 64 units of affordable housing. The small business center of the complex will bear Swing’s name.

These, of course, are just three people out of 250,000. To date, our country has done a poor job of recognizing those who have given their lives to the novel coronavirus, even as we suffer incalculable losses. It’s hard to put the numbers in perspective, but one point of comparison is that the number who have died from the coronavirus this year represents 97,000 more lives lost than the total number of US military deaths since the end of World War II.

The tendency may be to look the other way, but perhaps by lifting up the stories of at least a few of those who are now gone, we not only have a chance to honor some of the accomplishments of members of our commonweal, but perhaps to rededicate ourselves to taking the necessary measures to support and protect the rest of us.—Steve Dubb