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3.9 million years

The pandemic took lives far too soon. How much human potential has been lost?

Photo collage of people under a tree with a few falling leaves.

This year, Catalina Castillo is unsure whether her family of five will congregate for a holiday photo shoot. It’s a simple concern, but a traumatic one. Historically, it’s been her mother, Carola Montero, who urges Catalina and her three siblings to pose for a portrait — for memory’s sake. But this past December, Carola died of complications of Covid-19. “She was the reason we did a Christmas photo or any family photo,” Catalina said. Now someone else will have to make sure this ritual goes unforgotten.

For so many people like Catalina, who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, they look out on their futures and see these missing spaces. They think about the things their loved ones would have done. They think about the loving actions that are so small but that in sum are what fill family life with such richness.

More than 530,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the United States, but that figure hardly begins to explain the magnitude of the loss.

It’s easy to look at such a big number — half a million — and feel a bit numb about it. Death, in any single case, can be hard to fathom and make sense of. But with half a million deaths in the US, and millions more abroad, how many family photos won’t be taken? How many holidays will feel emptier? What human potential has been wiped off the earth?

No number will suffice in answering this question. But there is a statistic that helps. It’s what public health researchers call “years of potential life lost,” and it’s a statistic commonly used to calculate the toll of premature death. It can help shatter that feeling of numbness.

When researchers calculate years of potential life lost, they are asking a simple, devastating question: Were people taken by Covid-19 too soon? How much time would they have had left? They do this by essentially subtracting the age someone died from that person’s estimated projected life span.

On average, a new analysis from researchers at the University of South Florida and the Baylor College of Medicine finds, every Covid-19 death in the US has led to 9.2 years of life lost. For men, it’s a little higher, at 9.5 years. For women who died, it’s a little lower, 8.8 years. That’s eight or nine years of Thanksgivings, birthdays, weddings, and so much more.

This figure recognizes deaths from Covid-19 are not a one-dimensional statistic. Yes, death is a moment, a point in time. But the effects of death ripple out across years. What does it mean when a person isn’t there to make a favorite dish for a holiday meal? What projects have been left unfinished? What garden will go untended? What paychecks won’t provide for families anymore? What children won’t get to know and be cared for by their grandparent? What dreams died?

In all, it’s estimated that, as of January 31 and about 420,000 US deaths, there were 3.9 million years of potential human life lost. (Keep in mind that in February, tens of thousands more deaths occurred, and they’re not accounted for in this figure.)

This number — 3.9 million years lost — is staggering. But also, it’s not that abstract. Each of us can imagine a year of our own lives, and all the richness contained within it.

Consider a year of life — of your own, of a loved one; think of that being lost. Now try to multiply all that 3.9 million times. That’s the scale of what these deaths mean, not just in the moment but over time.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

The years of life lost metric can also help us understand ethnic and racial disparities produced by the pandemic in a starker light. Minorities in the US have been more likely to die of Covid-19 at younger ages than white people. When a person dies younger, more years of potential life are lost. And so these groups are left with an undue burden of lost potential.

These numbers aren’t meant to be absolutely precise. They’re meant to demonstrate the scale of what’s lost. In calculating years of life lost, the researchers have to make overly broad assumptions about how long people would have lived. In the case of the 3.9 million years lost figure, the researchers reduced the average life expectancies of those who died by 25 percent in their analysis. This accounted for the fact that people who die of Covid-19 are more likely to have underlying conditions, which could lead to a lower-than-average life span.

Even with this reduction in mind, these numbers are still haunting. But they’re also just numbers. We wanted to breathe some life into them and figure out what long shadows these deaths will cast.

To do that, we reached out to the families of three people who died of Covid-19 to learn what their loved ones were planning for the rest of their lives. We heard stories of celebrations and singing, of long-awaited reconciliations and nightly dinners, of people who lived and had so much more living left to do.

Hector Cantu, 50

San Diego, Texas

When Michelle Reneé Cantu thinks of her father, Hector, she is reminded of music: vibrant mariachi tunes, hit songs from the ’80s, and the sound of the trumpet, his favorite instrument. Hector, 50, died of Covid-19 complications in January. He had spent more than two decades teaching music to high schoolers in Premont, Texas, before moving to San Diego, Texas, where he worked for six years as assistant band director and head mariachi director. Just last year, the mariachi group he led won the state contest.

The loss of Hector has devastated the communities he was so involved in; he was the first teacher from the San Diego Independent School District to die of Covid-19. Former and current students, parents, and colleagues expressed their condolences across social media.

For Michelle, who is 28, Hector was “everything [she] had,” and his untimely loss left a gaping hole in her family’s future. Hector married her stepmom, Melissa, whom he met while teaching in Premont, just last March, after spending 24 years as a single parent. Melissa was the love of Hector’s life, Michelle said, and the pair wasn’t able to go to Colorado for their honeymoon, since stay-at-home orders were implemented a week after their wedding. “Our family had a lot of travel goals we missed out on because of the pandemic,” Michelle said. “We didn’t get together as much, and we kept just saying and thinking, ‘When all this ends.’ And it ended up with my dad being taken away from us.”

Hector raised Michelle and her younger brother, Jacob, as a single father. He encouraged them to play various musical instruments. As the siblings matured into adulthood, so did their relationship with Hector — but the fun remained. “I miss going out and cruising with him, and listening to all types of music, from ’80s tunes to bachata,” Michelle said. “At home, we loved watching movies, or sometimes we played Name That Tune, where we put on different songs and guess the title. If we didn’t get it, we’d have to take a drink.”

The Cantus were big on celebrating holidays, and Hector was always eager to bring the family together, whether for Halloween or Christmas. This past Christmas Eve, which was his last, Hector had the idea to host a pajama party at his mother’s house. “He was always living his best life,” Michelle said. That’s what makes the sudden loss so hard. Hector’s enthusiasm was so infectious and his love so consistent that it’s difficult for Michelle to imagine a world without it.

“After my dad passed, people would tell me and my brother, ‘He was so proud of you. He loved you,’” she said. “But I always knew that. He told us, and he always believed in us.”

There is a sense of comfort, though, that Hector achieved some of his biggest milestones in the months before the pandemic: leading the mariachi group to the state competition and marrying his true love. Yet there are countless small moments that Michelle finds herself missing: The post-football game Bud Lights, when Hector would talk about the marching band’s performance. The family dinners and drinks over hearty home-cooked food. The jokes and the stories he would tell. “He had so much more love to give,” she said. “It feels wrong that he isn’t a text or a phone call away anymore.”

Carola Montero, 46

Milwaukie, Oregon

Grocery shopping used to be a weekly errand Catalina Castillo enjoyed with her mother, Carola Montero. But since Carola, 46, died of Covid-19 complications in December, Catalina, the second-eldest sibling, has taken on the shopping duties alone for her family of five. The 21-year-old sometimes aimlessly circles her car around the supermarket parking lot, reminiscing about her mother. “I was extremely close with my mom,” she said. “I would take her grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments. She was my mom first, but also my best friend.”

Throughout Catalina’s and her siblings’ childhoods, Carola had been there every step of the way: as a chaperone on field trips, a front-row audience member at concerts and graduations, and a trusted confidante. Carola, an immigrant from Chile, had spent more than two decades as a full-time mother and homemaker before returning to the workforce in February 2020, when the Castillos needed additional income to pay their bills. At the time, Catalina and her older sister, Constanza, 23, were still in college and couldn’t work.

Carola sought out a job at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon and worked in the environmental services department as a housekeeper and cleaner. She was saving up to get her youngest son, Mathias, a computer for middle school, Catalina said, and extra funds for family vacations. “My mom had always wanted to go to amusement parks like Universal Studios, since she never got the chance when she was younger,” she added. “She also wanted to go back to Chile to see her cousins and uncles, then to San Francisco and other major cities, but we had to put those ideas on pause until the pandemic cooled down.”

The entire family, with the exception of Constanza, contracted the coronavirus in late November, and everyone recovered, except for Carola. It was a life-altering blow at the end of a traumatic year; their kitchen had caught fire the month before, and the family was temporarily residing in a nearby rental home.

Carola’s death still feels like a fresh wound for the Castillos. She was the glue that held the family together. One of the most painful realizations for Catalina is that her mother would no longer be around to experience the “common life things” with her and her siblings, as they enter young adulthood. She always cooked the Thanksgiving turkey, and knew how to appease her children’s picky appetites. She calmed them of their anxieties, and loved to go hiking and plan movie nights so the family could bond. “She was the reason we did a Christmas photo or any family photos,” Catalina said. “She also loved Detroit Lake in Oregon, where we go for our annual family trip.”

Catalina’s siblings and her father are seeking therapy to help them process the loss of Carola. That doesn’t make living through it any easier though; she was such a constant presence in each of their lives.

“I always thought she would be at my wedding or by my side in the operating room when I’m in labor,” Catalina said. “We all relied on her to be there, and we all feel like a part of us is missing.”

Epati Ala’ilima, 62

Duarte, California

Manumalo Ala’ilima, or Malo, remembers their eldest brother, Epati Ala’ilima, as a protector. As the youngest of seven siblings, Malo naturally saw Epati as their role model in adolescence: He was a Marine, a gifted musician, and a martial artist. Malo, 47, said their roles as the youngest and eldest siblings “defined where everybody’s position was in [the] family.” After Epati, 62, died of Covid-19 complications in July, they felt like they lost “the other bookend.”

Epati had retired in Southern California a few years earlier, and hunkered down with his wife, Sheila, and teenage daughters Jaylen and Kianna when the pandemic hit. He was the only one going out to get groceries and essentials for the family, since his wife and daughters were immunocompromised. “He was very devoted to them,” said Epati “Junior” Ala’ilima, 36, the oldest of Epati’s six children. “They really took every precaution and measure, so it was a big surprise to us that he got Covid.”

There is a lingering sense of incompleteness now that Epati has passed, Malo said: “I really felt like there were years that have been taken away from me, our family, his wife and children, prematurely.” Epati won’t get the chance to grow old with his grandchildren, and he had yet to see his youngest daughters go through the milestones of young adulthood, like dressing up for prom, receiving their diploma at high school graduation, and being sent off to college. There were so many moving parts in Epati’s life, even after he retired, that Covid-19 suddenly halted.

“We used to see each other, if not daily, at least once a week,” said Junior. “In our culture, you know, Samoan people are very family- and community-oriented. All of those things had to be altered with the pandemic. I rarely saw my dad face to face, and it was hard, knowing that’s how he spent the last year of his life.”

The week of Epati’s funeral was the weekend Malo had originally planned to wed their fiancée in Portland, Oregon, where they lived. Epati was one of the first people who preemptively booked a trip to Oregon to celebrate with Malo. “He was so excited to visit us, and it was beautiful to hear that from my eldest brother,” Malo recalled. “His excitement to my joy means a lot. He is a reborn Christian and has dedicated his life to the Christian God. Yet he was so excited for me. I remember a long time ago sharing that I was queer, and he really took the time to understand and figure out what made me happy.”

Junior believes that, if not for Covid, his father would’ve gotten more involved in the church ministry. Church became a big part of Epati’s life after his retirement, and Junior said his father felt like he had a calling to serve others. That’s why he always felt like the family’s protector, as Malo described. “He was a loving and caring father,” Junior said. “It’s unfortunate that he won’t be present at these family reunions we’d planned for after the pandemic. He was patient and kind, and we miss him so much.”

Brian Resnick is a science reporter at Vox, covering social and behavioral sciences, space, medicine, the environment, and anything that makes you think, “Whoa, that’s cool.” Before Vox, he was a staff correspondent at National Journal, where he wrote two magazine cover stories and reported on breaking news and politics.

Terry Nguyen is a reporter for The Goods by Vox. She broadly covers consumer and internet trends, and technology that influences people’s online lives and behaviors.

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