Rosa Luna cleaned the rooms of Covid-19 patients at Riverside Community Hospital in California. She died of the disease on May 4, aged 67. Hers is one of countless lives memorialised by the Twitter account @Facesofcovid. “My mother died in agony, complete agony,” said her daughter.
Most people in history pass without leaving a trace. But during this pandemic, societies are making an unprecedented effort to record the deaths of ordinary human beings. That is more than just a moral duty. Converting Covid-19 from statistical barrage into individual tragedies has political consequences. It affects our decision-making about wearing masks, opening schools and leaving lockdown.
Many of us in the modern era struggle to imagine death. Like taxes, it no longer feels unavoidable. People from a high social class in a rich country now often reach middle age without losing someone close to them, something unimaginable in any other period of history. Our generation’s failure of the imagination has probably encouraged the death-positivity movement. Its practitioners gather in workshops and “death cafés”, where they write their own obituaries and simulate their funerals.
Now the western world is experiencing its biggest wave of mortality since 1945. Sometimes it feels as if death is all around us, in an almost medieval way. In truth, though, we’re still cushioned. Even in a country as hard hit as the UK, the virus has probably killed fewer than one person in 1,000, based on the number of deaths above normal levels since March.
But a person can only have stable social relationships with about 150 people, according to the widely accepted “Dunbar’s number”. In short, most better-off people, in particular, remain personally untouched.
Consequently, the daily death toll can feel like a mere number. As the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky wrote in 1925 (though the line is often attributed to Stalin): “The death of a person: that’s a catastrophe. A hundred thousand deaths: that’s a statistic!”
This is especially true as most victims of Covid-19 die almost invisibly: off camera, often in a care home closed to visitors, their funerals watched on Zoom. Think of the Beatles song:
Died in the church and was buried
along with her name,
Wiping the dirt from his hands
as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
But had Eleanor Rigby died during this pandemic, she might have made the newspaper. Obituary sections have ballooned in size and range. “I’ve been moved by an obituary of an Uber driver or a ballroom dancer or schoolteacher,” says Ari Goldman of the Columbia School of Journalism, in an online seminar. A full obituary — a life in miniature — is perhaps the richest form of journalism, written with an empathy, nuance and long view of the individual that’s often missing elsewhere in the paper.
More common are paid death notices — “one of the few areas of growth in the [newspaper] industry today”, notes Goldman. Famously, the Italian L’Eco di Bergamo newspaper, which in normal times publishes about a page of them, ran 10 pages on March 14. In Paris, I have found myself spellbound by the death notices in Le Monde, where prestigious deceased are often identified by the grande école they attended: “Jean Dupont, Ecole Polytechnique, 1957 graduating class”.
Yet most deaths still don’t make the paper. Only 5 per cent of the 20,000-plus New Yorkers killed by Covid-19 so far have had “staff written or paid obituaries”, says Mark Levine, chair of the New York City Council health committee.
That’s where social media comes in. Faces of dead fathers and aunts are now lighting up timelines. Imagine if each victim of the London Blitz or China’s Great Leap Forward had lived for ever on a memorial page on Facebook. Death still isn’t the great leveller, but at least people are getting a tribute.
Social media has also given new meaning to “the last post”. Many victims of Covid-19 live on through their final public words, like the Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, who died 11 days after recording a Facebook video scolding a woman for coughing on his bus without covering her mouth.
The reminder of each victim’s humanity probably encourages more people to wear masks to the supermarket. It reduces the temptation to shrug about octogenarians dying alone in care homes. It’s also an argument against Elon Musk’s call for an end to “fascist” lockdowns.
There’s a valid debate to be had about the social cost of economic collapse. But as Captain Tom Moore, the 100-year-old Briton who has raised nearly £33m for the National Health Service by walking laps of his garden, told The Times last week: “I miss my mother and father and grandfather. That feeling continues for all time, even at 100. Most people do.”
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