A Curious Obsession with Life

As the COVID pandemic approaches its second full year, our nation and world continues to grapple with the consequences of the virus and the response to it.  As new variants and waves emerge, and fatalities continue, it is understandable that what occurs with this evolving story remains ever close to center stage. 

A large part of this focus is on the topic of mortality, both in what has transpired and what will come.  In wading through controversies about masking, vaccines, and under/over reporting of fatalities, I will let others continue to debate this publicly as I concentrate here on a different phenomenon.  Simply put, there is a tremendous obsession with the preservation of life related to the coronavirus that most of us have never witnessed before in our lifetime. 

For starters, you might regard this statement as sort of obvious.  Some might find themselves remarking “well, of course we are obsessed with life—many people are dying everyday as part of this pandemic.” As someone who has had friends and families die with the coronavirus, I understand what this reality means. Even beyond this idea, though, it seems rather expected that our country and world would be obsessed with life and death, for many reasons.  For starters, death as part of this pandemic is a relatively new phenomenon, which automatically draws more interest and scrutiny.  Given that we are all connected to this across the country and world, it makes sense that this focus would also be greater.  Furthermore, with new variants emerging on a regular basis, and with the unseen nature of this “pernicious foe”, this evolving mystery makes for a greater emphasis given the unknown about the future.  Finally, as the pandemic draws on, people are desperate to get back to normal, which means an intense focus on whatever it takes to do so (e.g., by reducing mortality rates).  Although not complete in scope, these appear to be the primary reasons why people and the media would be more focused on death associated with COVID than other causes.  And so as a psychologist and a person, I recognize that our response is somewhat predictable.

And yet, just because it is predictable doesn’t necessarily make it less worthy of attention, or even merited, on the scale by which it has occurred.  While it has been some time since an infectious disease infiltrated the world as the coronavirus has, the reality is that people have been dying en masse for decades and longer (i.e., all of humanity), at rates that either rival or exceed COVID; yet it seems that this occurrence either draws only partisan attention, or few headlines or discussion at all.  Meanwhile, I daresay that anyone living in this world has been exposed to thousands upon thousands (or more) of messages advising all people of what they should do to avoid death of self or others by COVID.  Furthermore, for every friend or family member that has commented on masking and vaccines as a means of spreading a “life message”, I am amazed at how few of these people I have ever heard strongly advise anything prior (especially in repetition) about other “life saving measures.”  In some ways, it is as if the pandemic has brought out this huge global life force.  Some might cynically argue that the underlying motives aren’t just life preservation, but regardless of your persuasion and opinions, this is the response we hear the most.

In making the case for what I am saying, let’s first start with data from the United States.  Again, foregoing the controversies about over/under reporting, at the time of this writing, the CDC indicates that over 702,000 people in the U.S. have died with COVID.  Meanwhile, estimates indicate that the silent pandemic of obesity claims well over a half-million people EVERY single year from related causes.  In fact, over 600,000 people die every year from heart disease, much related to this silent pandemic.  And mortality only tells part of the incredibly sad story about this plague, as many with obesity suffer in ways that deeply impact quality of life of self and others.  Despite this, as noted in a recent American Psychologist article, Americans seem “somewhat ambivalent” about this crisis, “often seeing obesity as a cosmetic issue most appropriately addressed by personal responsibility.”  Obviously, this response is not working as the most recent statistics continue to tell a grim story of this tragic pandemic.     

Yet, where are the constant TV spots, the lotteries, the college tuition giveaways, the incessant media coverage, and everyone from our neighbor on the corner to Jimmy Kimmel telling us what we should do to stave off this plague?  In reading this, you might argue that we can’t “spread” obesity like we can spread the coronavirus to unsuspecting victims (although with the vaccines reported to be widely effective against death and serious symptoms, the veracity of this idea is waning).  But the reality is that our actions, behaviors, and daily practices do in fact spread the obesity epidemic every single day, which is one reason, by the way, that our medical centers and outpatient clinics were already quite busy even prior to the pandemic (thus making the COVID response even more difficult).  Everything we do or don’t do around food, activity, sleep, and tech practices among other issues, as individuals and communities, has a potential to either reduce or magnify this pandemic.  Ironically (or not), obesity and factors related to it have also emerged as leading risk factors for serious illness and death related to the coronavirus. 

As an example of a simple intervention on a community level, incentivizing fully stocked grocery stores to be available in food deserts would assist all people in having access to healthy options, which has been shown to be one predictor of less nutritious eating.  Yet initiatives such as these often receive tiny amounts of finances and attention compared to the pandemic response.  On a personal level, a child born to two obese parents has an 80% chance of being obese; most youth who are obese in adolescence will remain so in adulthood. As people die at younger and younger ages from obesity-related causes, this remains a real threat to all as studies indicate that those who are obese at the age of 20 live an average of eight years less than those who aren’t.   Yet initiatives to assist parents in creating healthier family environments are often short-lived, ill funded, and minimal in scope.  To be clear, this is not about judgment of individuals and neighborhoods struggling with obesity.  It is about helping all of us be a healthier, more supportive community when it comes to this pandemic.

Meanwhile, stepping back into a worldview perspective, there are numerous examples of significant mortality and loss of quality of life that draw very little or almost no focus when compared with the coronavirus pandemic.  While ischemic heart disease (much of it related to obesity and other controllable health factors) is the leading cause of death worldwide, lower respiratory infections ranked 4th in 2019, claiming 2.6 million lives (before the pandemic existed).  Although the pandemic was not declared in many places until March of 2020, it should be noted that not quite 1.9 million people died with COVID in all of 2020.  Although numbers have continued to surge in the pandemic, the reality is that lower respiratory infections have been a huge killer for a long time, yet why has there not been a global response even remotely like that for COVID.  Meanwhile, heart disease deaths have skyrocketed worldwide, claiming 2 million more people in 2019 than in 2000.  In 2019, 8.9 million deaths were attributed to ischemic heart disease, which is more than twice the rate of projected COVID deaths in 2021.  Furthermore, the 6th leading cause of death—trachea, bronchus, and lung cancer—increased by 600,000 deaths during this time while diabetes is now in the top ten, claiming the largest increase (80%) in male deaths since 2000.

Yet, not once this year have I had someone hand out unsolicited advice to me about how I can reduce my risk of dying from these conditions nor has anyone suggested ways that we can all help everyone to be “safer.”  Nor have most institutions or communities taken drastic measures, and spent a large amount of capital, to be part of the solution in addressing these highly morbid conditions.  While periodic stories and initiatives do show up from time to time on the news and in political conversations, the reality is if even a small fraction of our time, focus, and finances allocated to COVID were targeted in these areas, real progress would be made.  Still, as it stands, there remains a peculiar obsession with a life affected by COVID and peculiar omission of life impacted by other means.  Still, at least for me, a person subjected to an early demise and loss of quality of life by any “unnatural” means is worth that of another.  Yet as the 600,000 white flags were placed on the National Mall in September to honor COVID victims, I wonder when others suffering an untimely death by other pandemic (or any) means will be honored in this way?

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