Young or old, COVID-19 took them too soon in 2020

More than 8,000 people in Cook County died in 2020 of COVID-19. They might still be with us had our nation done a better job of containing the coronavirus.

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Samuel Linares, owner of La Casa de Samuel restaurant in Little Village, who died on Dec. 14 after contracting COVID-19.

We wish Samuel Linares could have been with us longer. Chef Linares owned La Casa de Samuel, a highly praised restaurant in Little Village, having worked his way up and honed his skills in some of the finest restaurants in Mexico.

We wish Leroy Hearon were still here, too. Lt. Hearon was a Chicago firefighter who loved to tango. He traveled the world just to dance.

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And we sure wish Flossie Lee Bournes were still with us. Ms. Bournes was a nurse who cared for victims of AIDS in the early days of that health crisis, back when AIDS frightened people so much that families sometimes abandoned those who had the disease.

Why did Ms. Bournes take the risk?

“The Lord knew where I was supposed to be,” she would often say. “Here — taking care of his children.”

Mr. Linares, Lt. Hearon and Ms. Bournes are among the more than 8,000 people in Cook County who died in 2020 of COVID-19, and among the more than 16,000 people in Illinois who died of the disease. They were older, for the most part, but engaged in life, and there is every reason to believe they might still be with us had it not been for the coronavirus.

They left us too soon because we, as a society, did too little to contain COVID-19.

A cynical narrative about “culling the herd” continues to be propagated, mostly on social media, by those who seek to dismiss the dangers of COVID-19. The argument goes that those who have died were at death’s door anyway and the bug just finished them off. The argument further goes — more implied than stated — that the lives of older people are of negligible value to begin with.

Several studies of “excess mortality” have refuted the first point — that most victims of the coronavirus would have died anyway. If those who succumbed to COVID-19 would have died all the same, then the United States should have seen no overall big jump in deaths in 2020 compared to previous years. But a Centers for Disease Control analysis, to cite one of the larger excess mortality studies, has concluded that there was an upward spike of 300,000 deaths in the United States from Jan. 26, 2020 through Oct. 3. These were deaths over and above historically expected levels that could be explained only by COVID-19.

As for the suggestion that the lives of elderly Americans are of lesser value, we can’t help but recall when the same dismissive view was widely taken toward disabled people, gay people and Black people.

The venerated Chicago historian Timuel D. Black, now in his 102nd year, shot down this notion in a Sun-Times essay on May 11, when the pandemic was new. It would become one of our most widely read and shared op-eds of the year.

“I am infuriated by the dismissive attitude of certain politicians towards older Americans,” Black wrote. “Especially now, as we seniors are threatened by this virus, they act like we are expendable. But we have as much right to be here, living our lives, as anyone else.

“My contemporaries and I have a vast reserve of talent, ideas and positive experiences. We have been change-makers, and we are not done yet.”

We miss Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido Sr., who worked undercover in narcotics for much of his 36-year career. We miss Jan Brent, a Montessori preschool teacher from River Forest who loved the Mickey Mouse ring that her husband, David, gave her upon their engagement 47 years ago. We miss Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous-born hockey players to play in the National Hockey League. He made history during the 1953-54 season when he appeared in 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks.

We miss Lindy McDaniel, an All-Star reliever for the Cubs. We miss María Cerda, the first Latina on the Chicago Board of Education. We miss Joseph Sullivan, the first president of the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

We miss Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Lopez, a beloved Chicago 911 dispatcher, and we miss Carlos Rosas, manager of the acclaimed Calumet Fisheries, one of the nation’s best fish shacks. We miss high school English teacher boxing coach Tom O’Shea, who sent some of his students to the Olympics.

We miss them all, some of whom were pretty old, but no matter their age. We cannot accept that their time had come.

We miss Cosme Tenorio, a maintenance man for Tootsie Roll on the Southwest Side for 43 years, and Angel Butron, who worked for Tootsie Roll for 50 years. Most recently, at age 75, Mr. Butron worked on a machine that mixed ingredients.

We miss Raymond Brenner, a car salesman who hopped on a train in Chicago when he was just 13 years old — this was 1943 — and enrolled in a Navy boot camp in Idaho, 1,800 miles away.

We miss Archbishop Lucius Hall, founder of First Church of Love and Faith and a leader in gospel circles. And we miss Hecky Powell, the king of barbecued ribs in Evanston, as well as one of the suburb’s best civic boosters.

We wish they were still with us, every one of them. We let them down.

“It’s not enough to respect your elders,” Timuel Black wrote. “You’ve also got to protect them.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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