Death in the time of COVID-19

“Oh, Death, won’t you spare me over 'til another year?” — American Folk Song by Ralph Stanley

It's a hard thing to accept the contrary fact that death is a part of life, that we are all born with a common destiny, an appointment with death. The only thing that is unique about it is the day, the time, and the how of our personal exit.

In his book "Homo Deus", Yuval Harari writes of a super-human elite in the near future whose main concern will be with achieving immortality, made possible by advances in medical and bioscience. At that point the exit door will be locked from the inside, except for when death breaks it down from the outside and the immortal elite meets a proverbial bus hurtling towards them. Life will become an obsession with avoiding the bus, the accidental death at 500 years-old from a slip on the pavement.

Now and again I guess we can all do with a reminder that old man death is our constant companion. For many of us that reminder might be a personal experience with a life-threatening illness, cancer perhaps. Now all of us find ourselves in a time of a sobering global meditation on death, foisted upon us by a virus, something that's not even alive, a thing that needs us to give it life with the possibility of it taking our life in exchange.

Comparing our current pandemic to the 1918 pandemic it seems the pandemic of 1918 was more unjust than COVID-19 in that it mostly took the young and healthy, my young great-grandmother included. COVID-19 preys mostly, but not always, on the old. Is that "just" compared to one that took the young? Should us oldies be satisfied with our allotted "three score and ten" years (Psalm 90), or have we already become Harari's elite? And by the way, I for one am not volunteering myself. I haven't quite yet met my biblical allotment.

Most of us believe that we have "a right to life", and as the medical sciences progress, are we starting to believe none of us should die? Look at the extent and expense our modern societies go to to save even just one of us once we dial 911 and show up in a hospital bed. We even have to document our wishes NOT to be kept on this side of our exit doors even when all we have going for us is a pulse created mostly by a medical device.

Our religious myths tell us that life and our right to it is "God-given" and sacred, but isn't also our appointment with death God-given and sacred provided it's natural and not at the end of a sword or gun or the like?

As we obsess with death at this time of a viral pandemic, I wonder at how we humans are so cavalier with the lives of the animals that share the planet with us. The pig farmer I saw on the news recently said without any apparent recognition of irony that he was "brokenhearted" that he would have to "euthanize" his pigs because they were at the precise finished weight the Smithfield plant demanded for slaughter per their calibrated killing line, but which was closed because of a virus outbreak at the plant. A plant that will "process" 20,000 pigs a day. Does a pig prefer to be shot or gassed and buried in a mass grave rather than to swing from a hook and end up in a supermarket freezer?

On a "good day" in America, 25 million animals will be slaughtered. They call them "farm animals", but very few of them actually grew up on farms; most of them lived shortened lives in soulless, cramped, and unhealthy confinement, cared for by "modern farmers" with spreadsheets and slick mobile apps. Many of the animals spent their shortened lives standing and lying in their excrement and fed antibiotics with each meal and sip of water to make them grow faster and to protect them from the diseases that proliferate in such an environment, their every instinct for nurture, motherhood, companionship, foraging, fresh air and sunlight frustrated. But that too is man's right; the Bible tells him so.

And by extension is it our right to be breeding superbugs on these "farms", the cause of the next pandemic perhaps? Whatever its source, the shadow of man's hand lies across the current pandemic. Will future pandemics and disasters result from man ascribing to himself God-given rights of dominion over the earth and the animals, man's old cover for playing God?



Lyrics to “Oh, Death, won’t you spare me over 'til another year?” — American Folk Song by Ralph Stanley

(Man) 
Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Won't you spare me over 'til another year?
Well what is this, that I can't see? 
With ice-cold hands takin' hold of me?

(Death) 
Well I am Death. No one can tell. 
I'll open the gate to Heaven or Hell.

(Man) 
Oh, Death
Someone would pray.
Could you wait to call me another day?

My mother came to my bed
Placed a cold towel upon my head.
Well my head is warm my feet are cold
Death is a-movin' upon my soul.

Oh, Death, how you're treatin' me!
You closed my eyes till I can't see.
You're hurtin' my body
You're makin me cold.
You run my life right outta my soul.

Oh, Death, please consider my age.
Don't take me at this stage.
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand.

(Death) 
The old, the young, the rich or poor,
All alike to me, you know.
No wealth, no land, no silver or gold,
Nothing satisfies me but your soul.

(Man) 
O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year?
Won't you spare me over til another year?

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