Brianna Berry of Indiana lost her 37-year-old husband Lew Berry to COVID-19 in April 2020. 

Although most people in her area don’t wear masks anymore and have moved on as though the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, Berry explained, it hasn’t ended for her; she still suffers post-traumatic stress from the sudden loss of her husband, while still remaining vigilant to protect herself and others from possible COVID-19 infections. 

Now, more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, Berry and other COVID-19 widows and victims are frustrated with policies and public sentiments that dismiss the persistent reality of COVID-19 and are failing to address the impacts it has had on—and the ongoing risks it poses for—millions of people. 

“The phrase ‘back to normal’ drives me crazy because my normal died with my husband,” said Berry. “It’s very triggering.” 

Berry argued that public sentiments toward COVID-19, from people refusing to wear masks or get vaccinated, to insensitive insults blaming her husband’s passing on his weight even though he was healthy, have made it more difficult to recover from losing her husband. It took her months to be able to leave the house after losing him, and she still carries the grief with her.

“The phrase ‘back to normal’ drives me crazy because my normal died with my husband.”

Brianna Berry, who lost her 37-year-old husband Lew Berry to COVID-19 in April 2020 

“Right now I take off from work on his birthday, I take off his death anniversary, our wedding anniversary, and things like that. I can’t function enough to work those days,” Berry added. “It’s just this blindness and forceful ignorance that is totally insulting. And [it’s] upsetting that people will just still pretend that it can’t happen to them. And my message from the beginning has always been, `It can’t happen to you until it does.’” 

COVID-19-related deaths in the US have been severely undercounted, public health officials and researchers have noted, with the majority of 195,000 excess deaths in 2020 and 2021 considered to be unidentified COVID-19 cases, in addition to around 800,000 excess deaths officially linked to COVID-19. 

COVID-19 cases are also estimated to be widely undercounted, with the CDC citing in September 2021 that only one in four infections in the US have been reported. 

The US has the highest COVID-19 death count of any country in the world and the highest death rate of any wealthy country. 

“My kids lost their dad. My daughter is not OK. She knows that her dad disappeared, she knows he’s never coming back, that she’ll never be able to hug or kiss him again, but she needs clarity and there’s been nothing to help us.”

Pamela Addison, mother of two, who lost her 44-year-old husband Martin to COVID-19 on April 29, 2020

The life expectancy in the US dropped for the second year in a row due to COVID-19 to 76.6 years, the lowest in at least 25 years. 

More than 200,000 children in the US have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.

Pamela Addison, a mother of two, lost her 44-year-old husband Martin to COVID-19 on April 29, 2020. 

“My kids lost their dad. My daughter is not OK. She knows that her dad disappeared, she knows he’s never coming back, that she’ll never be able to hug or kiss him again, but she needs clarity and there’s been nothing to help us,” said Addison. 

As Addison and her two children are still struggling with the loss of her husband, the politicization of COVID-19 and the inconsistent, frenetic public policies dealing with it have made doing so even more difficult. 

“It’s like we don’t matter anymore,” said Addison. “COVID is not over and society has this mindset that it is over so now we’re taking away all these things that could help prevent more deaths. We’re reaching 1 million deaths, how many more do we want to reach?” 

Congress, at the behest of Republicans, cut $15 billion for COVID-19 funding from a $1.5 trillion spending bill signed by President Biden on March 16, resulting in the federal government cutting monoclonal antibody treatments by one-third and halting reimbursement of healthcare providers for COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and treatment for uninsured Americans. 

Some states have reported plans to close mass testing sites, despite experts predicting another surge. 

The Centers for Disease Control has also faced recent criticisms for changing COVID-19 tracking metrics and dropping mask mandate guidance. 

“I feel like no one cares about anybody but themselves anymore.”

Jennifer Bala, a heart transplant recipient in Colorado who has caught COVID-19 twice

These cuts come even as the US continues to report hundreds of deaths from COVID-19 per day (approaching 1 million deaths officially attributed to COVID-19), new variants are inciting fears over another surge of cases and deaths, and an estimated 7.7 to 23 million Americans are suffering from the effects of long COVID-19 while researchers are still working to better understand these ongoing symptoms

Jennifer Bala, a heart transplant recipient in Colorado, has caught COVID-19 twice, the most recent infection occurring in February 2022, leaving her bedridden and extremely ill for two weeks. Since contracting COVID-19, she has experienced frequent migraine headaches and a persistent cough. 

When she first contracted COVID-19, Bala was hospitalized and given an antibody treatment. Throughout the pandemic, she has avoided leaving the house as much as possible, and continues to wear a mask—though she’s seen mask usage decline drastically, which makes it even more difficult to go out. 

“It’s just really hard to leave the house anymore. I get scared all the time,” Bala said. “I feel like no one cares about anybody but themselves anymore.”

Family members who lost loved ones are pushing for the creation of a national memorial day for COVID-19 victims, for direct financial relief provided to victims and their families, and for continuing public health measures to control and stop the spread of the virus. 

Kristin Urquiza lost her father to COVID-19 in July 2020, after a 19-day battle with the virus, which she attributed to widespread misinformation and downplaying of the virus by then-President Trump and other elected officials.

She co-founded a nonprofit, Marked by Covid, to advocate and support Americans who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and to demand action from elected officials.

“It’s just this blindness and forceful ignorance that is totally insulting. And [it’s] upsetting that people will just still pretend that it can’t happen to them. And my message from the beginning has always been, `It can’t happen to you until it does.’”

Brianna Berry, who lost her 37-year-old husband Lew Berry to COVID-19 in April 2020 

“There is a deep desire from our elected officials to move on without acknowledging the massive loss of life and the profound ripple effects from that,” said Urquiza. “There are so many layers to the burden that our community is carrying. It’s financial, emotional, and [there’s] also little recognition and little support to really build bridges towards economic viability, in particular, for the people who were already sort of living on the margins.” 

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans and communities of color, who have been at much greater risk for COVID-19 infections and have borne the brunt of the economic impacts of the pandemic. 

“What I’ve been reading in the news coverage recently seems to be trying to reinforce the narrative coming out of the White House: that everything is okay. I think that is a form of gaslighting. Because you only have to scratch below the surface to find out that many people are not okay, in many different ways,” added Urquiza. “While I’m a very high-functioning ‘not okay’ [person], I’m simply not okay. I think I can do more good for the people I care about in my community by being honest with that, than trying to pretend that nothing happened.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a contributor to The Guardian and a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.