While sheltering in place in California during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about my graduation day—but not because it was particularly uplifting. On that day, I coincidentally and extraordinarily had a distressing run-in with a dead body.
I received my Ph.D. from Boston University in May 2017. The day of the graduation ceremony, I went for an afternoon jog along the Charles River to deal with the jitters of having to walk across a stage wearing a silly floppy hat in front of hundreds of strangers. In one direction, the run was uneventful. On the way back, though, I happened to glance out over the water and stumbled to a halt. There was a human head and shoulders just visible above the surface of the water, facedown, and about 10 meters from the riverbank. I kept staring. I saw no movement. Within minutes, I was on the phone to 911 dispatch, wading chest-deep into the river to make sure this was not a living person in need of assistance. It was not.
Until recently, boats ferried tourists each day along Borneo’s Kinabatangan River who were searching for elephants splashing on the shoreline, crocodiles peeking up from the khaki waters, and orangutans gliding through the treetops. But now, those boats remain moored.
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus rocks the world, a haunting aspect of the pandemic is coming increasingly into focus: The very sick are dying all-too-often without loved ones by their side.