COVID-19 is now part of life, and it is still part of death. The statistics can tell us how many have died from being infected with COVID-19, but they can’t tell us how many actually died because of COVID-19.


COVID-19 is now part of life, and it is still part of death. The statistics can tell us how many have died from being infected with COVID-19, but they can’t tell us how many actually died because of COVID-19.

People physically died directly from COVID-19. It was and still is a deadly virus. People also physically died from its effects — they did not have COVID-19, but they died from it because they were isolated, alone, cut off from social contact and interaction.

In infants, we call these deaths “failure to thrive.” In adults, we have no name for it, but it is the very same thing. For infants, not being held, not being fed, not having social contact and not having extended family support leads to the lack of any desire to live. Eventually, food will not sustain them, because it has no connection to care.

What does this “failure to thrive” look like in adults? We will have some general stereotypes in mind. We will think of street people, those suffering acute mental illness or experiencing poverty, those who suffer on the spectrum of social phobias — and yes, many who suffer in those circumstances are at risk for death by failure to thrive.

During COVID-19 there have been others who were financially very secure, many who were contributors to our communities. Many with great skills and gifts to offer, but with COVID-19 pushing us all behind closed doors, some people are forgotten.

Who are those people? Mostly, they were and are the folk who live alone. Not always in separate homes; some in apartments and condos. The social connections of everyday life simply dried up and disappeared. No more dinners out, no more coffee groups, no more educational groups, no more fundraising, or cause-focused dinners, no more theatre or movies, no more libraries, no more art gallery.

The list could go on, but frankly the picture painted is a closed door. There is no reason to go out.

This happened in COVID-19, and it happened before the virus and will continue after. These are not friendless people, but they are people who live by themselves. They are often seniors, but not always. Quite simply, these are folks who are not on anyone’s daily agenda for checking on regularly.

So time passes, and someone says, “Have you talked to Fred?” Later, someone else says, “I haven’t seen Fred for a while.” Another one comments, “You know, the other day I phoned Fred and he sounded so different.” It takes a while for someone to get to the point of saying, “Maybe we should go around and visit.”

Ask any emergency responder, and they could tell you that by then it could already be too late. This is not a petty concern in the light of war, pandemics and inflation. It is unnecessary death by isolation, it is failure to thrive, and it is akin to criminal negligence on our parts.

The will to live is a fragile thing, and even the most solitary person needs social contact. In total isolation, we wither and die. Even prisoners have guards who check on them, and the check is more frequent when they are in solitary confinement because we know how life-threatening isolation can be. It is mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically dangerous. Ponder each of those words and imagine what being “cut off” does to that aspect of self.

Life now is returning to what we call “normal,” which means busy. Busy is what we do to make a life. Busy-ness, which leads to overlooking others, is an illness unto itself. Until COVID-19 shut us down, some single persons living alone were busy. Some coped well with technology, and other forms of connection; some did not.

This is not a judgment or accusation, but it is very much a call for awareness and action. Death by failure to thrive is a tragedy for us all, and it need not happen.

As COVID-19 changes from pandemic to endemic, I have facilitated many celebrations of life, and traditional funerals. People have faced the death of many people they loved, and those celebrations showed that love. But how do we celebrate the death of someone who could not feel, see, or share the love?

We feel so cheated, and they felt so alone, so very cut off that they lost the skill and perhaps even the will to reach out. Failure to thrive affects us all, because all too often it is where guilt and grief come together.

Karen Toole is a North-End Winnipegger, United Church minister, community educator and a former Faith Page columnist in the Free Press.