The Fight to Remember the Pandemic's Dead Before They're Forgotten

Angela Kender, holding a portrait of her mother, documents the toll COVID-19 has taken.
Angela Kender, holding a portrait of her mother, documents the toll COVID-19 has taken. STEVEN DUONG

Page 3 of 3

President Trump announces Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee during a Rose Garden ceremony that is suspected to be a super-spreader event. - Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti
Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti
President Trump announces Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee during a Rose Garden ceremony that is suspected to be a super-spreader event.

However they choose to answer these questions, future historians will be sure to focus on the crucial role that political polarization has played in America's disastrous response to COVID-19./p>

Political journalist Ron Brownstein has described the great fault line in America today as the "coalition of restoration" — the 40 percent or so of Americans consisting of cultural conservatives in rural areas and small towns seeking to protect white privilege and supremacy in an era of rapid change — versus the "coalition of transformation," the growing majority of Americans who are OK with the fact that non-Hispanic white Americans by 2040 will be a numerical minority after 400 years of social and political dominance.

Because they feel left out and left behind, under siege and betrayed by such key American institutions as the news media, universities, science and the Washington political establishment, these culturally conservative Americans feel "their status quo has suddenly reached a point of instability," says Foss, the author of Constructing the Outbreak. "Whenever anyone feels their status quo is threatened, it leads to a questioning of everything held up as truth — and a kind of clinging desperation for promises of return to that position of power or position of status quo."

Also contributing to America's pandemic catastrophe is the Republican Party's "ability to ignore and dismiss the truth about Trump and his campaign," Foss says. "To kind of sweep away and gaslight all the things that happened there — that absolutely set up what we're seeing now."

Urquiza, the co-founder of Marked By COVID, wants to keep the public focus on America's failed leadership in combating the pandemic. She notes that a big part of her group's mission consists of calling out "failed leadership, failed policy, and connecting those dots to real-life, on-the-ground impacts which are incredibly profound for the nearly 200,000 people who have passed to the 6 million people who are survivors."

Urquiza says it's become alarmingly obvious that America needs "to have a leader in charge who is really the head cheerleader for the strong, coordinated response."

Trump has been anything but that.

"As you can see, there has been misinformation and lies running about," she says. "He's creating a culture of confusion which is basically a petri dish for the virus to flourish."

It's hard to overstate the depth of the horrors that the Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, inflicted on Europe nearly seven centuries ago.

When it emerged on the continent in 1347, it swept through its central and southern regions like a ghastly wildfire, wiping out entire villages overnight in the form of a disease whose symptoms include bleeding from every orifice, blackened body parts, painfully swollen lymph nodes, and hellacious vomiting and diarrhea.

The Black Death killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe — at a time when the population was only 80 million — in a four-year span, and another 150 million or so elsewhere around the world. The plague would periodically ravage Europe for the next four centuries, touching off waves of murderous reprisals against Jews and suspected witches and heretics.

In 1665, the Great Plague of London killed as many as 100,000 people in a single year in Britain's largest city at a time when its population was about 460,000. The plague ended after a great fire destroyed much of the city.

Yet, despite the immense death toll, there are virtually no monuments to the Black Death in Great Britain. The closest you will find are weather-worn, usually barely legible stone crosses erected centuries ago in churchyards to mark mass graves or serve as simple memorials to the victims. In addition, the English countryside is dotted with "plague stones," monoliths erected outside local markets showing where people could meet and transact business without fear of infection.

"People have a very hard time, I think, wrapping their head around an invisible enemy," says Gordon, with the Missouri Historical Society.

It's easy to vilify another country, or another group of people, he says.

"People you can point to and say, 'These are bad people,' or, 'These are the enemy,' or what have you," he says. "And it's just a lot harder to just sit down and think about something that they cannot see. That doesn't personally affect a friend or family member, then they don't get a true sense of how serious the situation is."

Some pandemics are so awful and so crushing to the human spirit that people just want to move on, according to Foss, the author of the book about pandemics. She thinks that could happen with COVID-19 in the years ahead.

"I think you will have collective amnesia overall," she says. "Because people will try to forget, since it's been highly politicized."

But there will also be a strong pull in the direction of seeking to remember, Foss predicts.

"I think there will be others who will tell that story," she says, "and document what's going on so we won't forget the people who died."

Gordon says his department is seeking to make sure that doesn't happen when it comes to documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. A major focus for his department is to collect primary source material.

"We really jumped on this quickly, hoping we could capture their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences during the pandemic. And this is common across the country.

"So the idea is, 100, 150 years from now, when people look back on this, hopefully we'll have a much better understanding of what the country was going through at the time," he says.

The collective amnesia when it comes to pandemics even extends to the 1918 crisis' greatest heroes, including Max C. Starkloff, the visionary St. Louis health commissioner. An early promoter of the concept of social distancing, Starkloff doubtlessly saved thousands of St. Louisans' lives through his adamant demands that businesses and schools shut down and St. Louis residents practice social distancing to slow the influenza virus' spread.

Starkloff "was willing to stand up and push for so many restrictions when, just like now, people were angry and thought it was outrageous and counterproductive, and [that] sort of thing," Gordon says.

Yet no statues or other memorials have been erected to honor Starkloff's heroic legacy.

One example of the primary sources the historical society is collecting is a political flier Gordon received in August before the vote to expand Medicaid in Missouri. On the flier was the image of a man wearing a face mask with the Mexican flag printed on it, he says.

"It was anti-immigrant, as well as anti-mask," Gordon says. "It was interesting."

What happens when we die?

Leave it to the Canadian sage and actor Keanu Reeves, the star of those Matrix and John Wick movies, to give the truest answer you could possibly give about this most quintessentially human of questions.

It happened in May 2019, when Reeves made an appearance on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

"What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?" Colbert asked.

Reeves pondered the question for a moment. Then, oracle-like, dropped this pearl: "I know that the ones who love us will miss us."

So it is with Gaye Griffin-Snyder.

The woman who sent Angela Kender on her mission to make face masks mandatory in Missouri was born in 1948 in Springfield, Missouri. She loved sunsets. In the documentary, Kender recalls that's "how she finds peace in the world: sitting and watching a sunset. She'd just do it every day."

Mary Ellison, who knew Griffin-Snyder for 23 years after meeting her at a church function in their native Springfield, has one word to describe her old friend: fierce.

"She was a fierce friend," Ellison recalls. "She was tremendously faithful. ... She was tough as a mule. She'd get something in her head, this was the way she'd do something and she'd do it."

Another of Griffin-Snyder's loves: long road trips.

"She loved to drive," Ellison says, "to take road trips and look at the scenery. Eat a chocolate chip cookie. Eat a hamburger. She loved to do that."

More than ten years ago, Griffin-Snyder began experiencing problems with her balance. After a diagnosis of MS — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the loss of muscle control — she tried as hard as she could to keep it to herself, her friend says.

"She struggled with that and tried to beat it at every turn," Ellison explains. "She described it as evil. 'If there is evil in the world' is one of those things she'd say."

Her worsening struggle with MS sometimes sent her to the hospital.

"She'd end up in the hospital and be near death," Ellison says. "But then she'd come back. She attributed that time and time and time again to her faith in God."

Griffin-Snyder was also a proud Democrat in a part of Missouri full of hardcore conservatives, including members of her own family.

"There was sometimes a bit of a rift there," Ellison says. "Those were fun conversations and rantings."

In the end, she saw everyone as people because she believed "there is good in all of us. We tend to survive. And get mad," she says. "That's one of the beauties about having good friends and talking things out."

Griffin-Snyder was cremated and her ashes collected in an urn that rests in her daughter's home.

A funeral has yet to be held. A church service was originally scheduled for July, but Kender decided to postpone it because COVID-19 cases were surging in Missouri at the time.

Angela Kender keeps her mother's ashes in an urn and hasn't been able to hold a memorial service yet because of the pandemic. - STEVEN DUONG
Angela Kender keeps her mother's ashes in an urn and hasn't been able to hold a memorial service yet because of the pandemic.

The scene: the backyard of Kender's home in a subdivision located in Oakville.

Kender approaches the fence that stands at the edge of a steep, tree-filled ravine. She tries to make sense of the last six months. She had given birth to her infant son just before the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, which meant she and her family were prevented from visiting her mother in the nursing home or the hospital in the last months before her passing.

So during the last six months of her mother's life, the only way Kender could communicate with her mother was over the phone or through a computer screen. No touching, no hugs, no in-person contact of any kind.

Kender points toward the ravine. Soon after bringing her mother's ashes home in a red-colored urn, she scattered some of them in her yard and over the fence.

"By putting her in the backyard, to me it feels like she can see our family," Kender says, "her grandchildren growing up. She's right there. I walk out there and talk to her several times a week."

As for her two young children, Kender knows what she will tell them about the coronavirus pandemic when they are old enough to understand.

"I think I will emphasize the importance of listening to the science community," she says, "even if it's not what you want to hear. Listening and doing whatever you can to be a good planet citizen, to take care of each other."

Kender stares raptly into the ravine. She admits it's been a hard week. Just the night before, at his Ohio campaign rally, Trump made his infamous remark about how COVID-19 "affects virtually nobody" — words that only exacerbate Kender's grief.

The subject turns to Governor Parson, leading Kender to muse about why, after the deaths of so many Missourians, Parson still refuses to impose a statewide mask mandate.

"I just think he's listening to the wrong people," she says. "And he's trying to appease a very ignorant base."

Two days later, Parson reveals to the media that he and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19 and will quarantine in the governor's mansion.

When texted about this development, Kender replies that she's already heard about it.

"Sadly not shocking," she texts.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.