COVID-19: Why Are We Not Talking about the Dead?

A candle in the dark

Tens of thousands of Britons have died with no end in sight to this pandemic. Each day sees a new number of total deaths but that number is too often treated as a mere statistic if it’s mentioned at all — and in many newspapers, it isn’t.

The media and politicians are happy to talk about the NHS and how much we need to clap, about centenarians walking for charity, about Boris Johnson’s illness and personal life. The peculiarities of life under lockdown, the changes to our daily schedules and the details of those who are breaking the lockdown, real or imagined, have become daily news fodder.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with covering these stories, but they seem to be the only things most newspapers talk about or much of what a smaller group of newspapers, as well as the broadcasters, talk about.

Only occasionally stories relevant to the country’s ability to deal with the current emergency are featured; about the lack of PPE for doctors, nurses and other workers helping the sick, or how a decade of underfunding and austerity have positioned us so inadequately for this emergency.

Normally when people die before their time, especially when it’s a considerable number of people, we would hear about the people who have died, about the lives that they lead and the loved ones they left behind.

The stories of a small few get through, those deaths that are particularly soul-wrenching and heart-breaking. The first doctor to die, the mother who had just given birth, the nurse just days away from retirement, the doctor who had complained about a lack of PPE just days before his death.

The more we know about someone who died, and how they died, we naturally want to know why they died.

When someone dies at the hands of a terrorist or criminal we barely have to say that they shouldn’t have died, so obvious is it. We know it shouldn’t have happened, we demand that those responsible pay and that steps are taken so it doesn’t happen again.

When people die because they were homeless or they starved to death because they had their benefits stopped, the more we know about them, the angrier we get and the more we demand change. Perhaps that’s why we hear so little about it in our media and from many politicians.

In this COVID- 19 crisis, people died because they got sick of course. But natural disasters can be and should be anticipated and the right choices need to be made by those in charge. With COVID-19 we had plenty of warning.

Why have so many in Britain got sick, and died, compared to elsewhere? Why did the lockdown start so late, why has it been less stringent than other places, why even now, is Britain one of the only countries in the world with no restrictions or health measures on people arriving in the country? What took place in the weeks before the pandemic hit, when we knew it was coming? And what’s happening now, behind the scenes?

When deaths occur on this scale in other countries, we get a sense of what is happening in those places. Before the pandemic hit Britain, and Italy was struggling to cope with the number of deaths there, our news coverage was talking about the scenes in hospitals, retirement homes and people’s homes, about funeral parlours and mortuaries’ ability to cope, so many were the daily number of deaths. We saw Italian newspapers with pages and pages of obituaries.

Considering how many have died in Britain, we seem to be seeing very little reporting about it. There are honourable exceptions to this, but they are exceptions.

We should be hearing about these people and the lives they led. We should be hearing about what’s going on in hospitals as well as care and retirement homes. With care homes, it seems many of the sick were not allowed to go to a hospital for treatment. They died where they were. To make space in hospitals, people were sent back to care homes, only to infect others.

Our NHS workers, and many others, are heroes. So let us hear about these heroes’ daily lives. What are they going through? In the first few weeks, we heard far more in some newspapers about NHS workers’ experience of getting to work on the tube or their difficulties at the supermarket than we did about what was happening when they got to work.

Much, though not all, of the media, has failed us. It’s never been so clear that they do not exist to inform us of events, but to control and manage the national discourse through distraction and disinformation. It’s been said many times, but much of the press has spent more time keeping the public to account rather than the government. Our media have been cowed into passivity or are ideological compatriots to the government of the day.

Many of our politicians have failed us too. It’s their job to hold the government to account, whatever party they are in, to ask tough, uncomfortable questions and demand a change of course. Too many are tribally defending their government or wondering how criticism will look in a focus group. The search for consensus is sometimes complicity in the failure to save lives.

Those politicians that do their job are either ignored by the media or attacked by the usual pundits in one of a dozen ways, none of them relevant to the issue.

The less we hear about those that died and about how people are dying, the easier it is to ignore why they died. Of course, the media can’t change the conversations we are having with each other and what we think but they do create a public narrative that we get used to. It’s insidious and little by little, we accept what we shouldn’t, what we wouldn’t if the media weren’t government goons.

What is the plan for eradicating this virus? I am not sure it’s at all clear. We hear how things are being led ‘by the science’. That’s not the end of the debate, that should be the start. It’s also clear many politicians and journalists don’t know what science is or are deliberately using it as a shield to deny proper criticism of the government’s actions.

I’ve seen so many ambulances in the last few weeks, perhaps I’m just noticing them more with everything going on but it occurred to me none of them had their sirens on.

Too many people have died and are still dying and those in charge of the sirens have not turned them on.

Psychology, politics, history, and moments of realisation and despair. There are attempts at humour.