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What We've Lost: People

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's the first day of 2021. But looking back at 2020, you can measure the year in a series of losses - economic, educational, emotional. And of course, there are the lives we have lost to this pandemic. The people who have died of COVID-19 have left empty spaces in families.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I lost my beloved uncle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Friends I've known for 20 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My father in law.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My grandmother.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Two cousins.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Both my grandpa and my mom.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And they've also left holes in their communities, which is what we wanted to focus on today for our series, What We've Lost - how one death from the coronavirus can be a loss to an entire community.

CHANG: We first told you about Jim Herber in November. Herber was an Army veteran and retired mailman in Sheboygan, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEVIN HERBER: He absolutely adored his mail route crew, the people that he delivered to. He did that for over 30 years.

SHANNON OGNACEVIC: I think it was 38, wasn't it?

SARA VAN WAGENEN: Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

HERBER: I have so many people come up to me like, your dad was our mailman. He always had licorice for the kids and a dog treat for the dog. And he just really got it. Like, he knew how to talk to people and just be present.

CORNISH: Those are his kids, Kevin Herber, Shannon Ognacevic and Sara Van Wagenen. In retirement, Herbert volunteered at Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice. He was at patients' bedsides in their final moments, part of a program called No One Dies Alone.

CORNISH: Sitting vigil was important to Jim Herber. But Kevin Herber says his father was quiet about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HERBER: If he was going to meet up with us to go, like, on a bike ride on a Sunday, he might say, hey, we'll meet up at 10. Then you might get a call early Sunday morning, saying, can we move that to noon? So we'd meet up at noon, and he'd be like, well, I was in Sharon Richardson's since 3 in the morning. It was just kind of a passing thing. Like, he didn't want to, like, brag about it or anything. It was just what he did.

OGNACEVIC: So that was kind of, like, the big injustice in all of this was that - I'm going to get emotional now.

VAN WAGENEN: He was there for everyone else, and it really sucks that we couldn't be there for him at the end.

OGNACEVIC: That he had to be alone, yeah.

CHANG: Jim Herber, who eased the path for so many before him, died of COVID-19 in early November. The death toll then had climbed to 230,000 people. COVID was starting to spike. Public health officials were warning of a deadly winter. With nearly 350,000 now dead, those predictions have come true.

CORNISH: Rewind now back a few more months to the middle of summer. And all eyes were on the South, where the worst outbreaks were concentrated.

CHANG: Like so many activists before her, Pamela Rush harnessed the tears of her own misfortune and joined a wave.

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PAMELA RUSH: My name is Pamela Rush. I'm from Lowndes County, Ala., and I live in a mobile home with my two kids.

CORNISH: That's Rush in 2018, testifying before Congress about the predatory lender that got her into that mobile home in rural Alabama. It was saturated with mold. Pests and animals lived alongside her two children.

CHANG: But a cousin came to visit one day. Here's activist Catherine Coleman Flowers speaking to the Poor People's Campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: She showed me how she was living. She also told me about the predatory lending that she and her family were victim of. I asked her, would she mind sharing her story with people that I would bring there who could potentially help her? And I thought then that Pamela's story was really a stark view of inequality in this nation.

CORNISH: After testifying before Congress, Pamela Rush would go on to speak about the complex causes of deep poverty with journalists, celebrities and politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLEMAN FLOWERS: She was kind of the Fannie Lou Hamer of this whole movement around helping people to understand poverty and understand that it's not because of personal feelings. It's because of traps or systems that we put in place to make it impossible for someone to escape it.

CORNISH: Pamela Rush died of COVID-19 on July 3. She was 49.

CHANG: We're going to go back even further now to March, the beginning of the pandemic. There was a lot we still didn't know about the coronavirus. But we did know already that it was sweeping through communities of color and killing members of those communities who would leave unfillable holes, like Orlando McDaniel, who died on March 27.

CORNISH: Back in college, McDaniel was a Division I track and football star whose speed got him drafted to the Denver Broncos. He'll be most remembered as a dedicated mentor and coach for the North Texas Cheetahs Track Club, a group he founded for teen girls in the Dallas area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MORGAN BURKS-MAGEE: Orlando was different from other coaches because he was so dedicated with his athletes. And he was just so invested in our personal lives as well as far as, like, grades, like, making sure we were on top of that. He understood that everything that we did outside of track affected track, so he was concerned - like, OK, if they have jobs, how often are they working? Are they having family issues? Like, do they need somebody to talk to?

CIERRA WASH: He'll show up to school events, help pay for stuff if we needed it.

ARIUS WILLIAMS: That was the, like, greatest thing to ever have, you know, for some girls that didn't have a father in their life most of the time. He believed in me, and he saw potential that I didn't see in myself.

JASMINE MOORE: He really did change my life.

CHANG: That was Morgan Burks-Magee, Cierra Wash, Arius Williams and Jasmine Moore remembering coach Orlando McDaniel, who died in March near the beginning of this pandemic, a pandemic that has followed us into this new year - but with two vaccines already being distributed across the country, will hopefully not greet us with the same intensity in the next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "LAKESIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.