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RABBI ROSE: One is born an individual; One becomes a statistic
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RABBI ROSE: One is born an individual; One becomes a statistic

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A branchless tree marker adorns a grave at Norfolk’s Elmwood Cemetery. The chopped tree symbolizes a life cut short. 

Since the start of the pandemic, we have been inundated with numbers and statistics meant to help interpret the unfolding disaster around us.

Thanks to our news outlets we’ve seen graphs and charts updated daily, weekly, monthly, breaking down numbers of cases and deaths; vaccination rates by location, the lack of ICU beds in hard hit rural America, and charted and graphed the over 1,700 healthcare workers who have died of COVID-19 so far.

Our epidemiologists, politicians, medical professionals, sociologists and news outlets, can barely keep up with, let alone analyze the statistics generated by data-gathering organizations like the Centers for Disease Control or American Public Media’s “The Color of Coronavirus Project,” which breaks down figures of COVID deaths by race, ethnicity, age and location in the U.S.

The data is dry, but, in the words of science writer Paul Brodeur, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away.”

There is no question that numbers and statistics can be powerful. But as any newspaper editor can tell you, news of one death is a tragedy; news of a hundred deaths is a statistic. And it is the one tragic death that makes the headlines.

Sadly, COVID has shown us that the closer that death is to you, the greater the tragedy.

Be honest. When you look at the numbers, do you find yourself thinking, “but I don’t live there,” or “I’m young and healthy,” or “my local hospital still has beds”?

And be really honest and admit you are relieved when you look at the numbers and think, “I’m not an Hispanic or Black American, or Pacific Islander, Native American, or Evangelical Christian. I don’t go to rock concerts or other large gatherings, and I don’t have a job in an essential industry where I come face-to-face with the public.” What you’re really thinking is, “I don’t fit into any statistically vulnerable group, so COVID isn’t going to impact my life.”

But all that is about to change. We now have a new category for statistical analysis: COVID Orphans. These are children who have lost a parent or a grandparent with whom they lived and who were financially responsible for them, or other primary caregiver. And as of this point in time, over 120,000 children in the U.S. have become COVID Orphans.

Does it matter what color or ethnicity or statistical group they land in? I can tell you that 35 percent of the kids are white, about 32 percent are Hispanic and about 26 percent are Black. And there will be more. And one way or the other, all of us will be impacted by their losses as they enter a lifetime of uncertainties, lost opportunities, along with financial, social and mental health challenges.

So many times during the pandemic I have uttered, under my breath, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” And just last month, someone in my own extended family died of COVID, leaving three children behind, now officially “COVID Orphans.” Just one more statistic? No, not when the tragedy creeps closer to home.

Good or bad, it is human nature to hide our heads in the sand, hoping that bad things will pass us by, and rarely do we extend a hand to help the other.

Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor during WWII, is best known for his statement on man’s ability to turn his back on “the other”:

First they came for the Communists

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And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

We, in the U.S., having all experienced tragedy during COVID, can no longer afford to categorize the suffering of each ethnic or racial group. The suffering is catching up with each of us.

Wishing you all a peaceful and healthy week.

Rose Lyn Jacob is the rabbi of a five-county area in the Virginia Piedmont, including Culpeper.

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