Ryan Brown discusses the ways we have – and have not – publicly mourned those who have died from Covid-19
On 26 January 2021, the total number of Covid-19 related deaths in the United Kingdom passed 100,000. In response to this milestone Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that ‘it is hard to compute the sorrow contained in that grim statistic.’ (Johnson 2021) The tragedy of the pandemic is here characterised by its unrepresentable quality, by the failure to fully understand the scale of loss that the number ‘100,000’ represents. Johnson went on to say, ‘to all those who grieve, we make this pledge: that when we have come through this crisis, we will come together as a nation to remember everyone we lost, and to honour the selfless heroism of all those on the front line who gave their lives to save others.’ (Johnson 2021) Johnson defers mourning and remembrance until after the pandemic. He suggests it is simply too soon for public mourning. Equally, Johnson’s emphasis on ‘front line’ deaths as the result of ‘selfless heroism’ demonstrates a certain acceptance of these deaths as a tragic, yet necessary sacrifice. The portrayal of the pandemic as a heroic war, notably though conjuring the idea of the Blitz spirit, has been the chief ideological manoeuvre from a government who hope to prepare the public to countenance avoidable deaths. As Johnson acknowledges the necessity for remembrance, he also defines who the dead are and how they died. The majority of those to have died during the epidemic were not heroes on the frontline but the socially vulnerable. How are we to remember those who died alone, who we cannot ‘honour’ through reflection on their selfless sacrifices? How do we remember the non-heroes, the normal people?
One of the few forms of public mourning currently taking place is the ‘on-line book of remembrance’, setup by St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in which people who have lost a loved one can submit a photograph and message as a memorial. The experience of looking at the website is deeply moving and overwhelming. There are, at the time of writing, sixty-seven pages encompassing over six thousand memorials. It feels impossibly, unbearably large and yet does not cover even 10% of the total deaths so far. In contrast to Johnson’s claim that the many deaths are unrepresentable and public mourning should be deferred, these memorials make immediately present what has happened, placing individual losses at the centre of the process of remembrance and mourning. Seeing column after column of faces—each can be clicked to bring up a personal message from loved ones—returns the specificity of loss to an event regularly thought of in totalising statistical terms. Each image and epitaph mark a unique instance of grief which is placed in a constellation with thousands more.
Clicking through this digital cemetery at times feels too voyeuristic, as if I am intruding upon other peoples’ grief which I watch from my protected and privileged position. Reverting back to the safe detachment of my literary critical training I want to call these memorials ‘sublime’ but feel shame at doing so and a sense of the futility of such theoretical concepts. What good is thinking about Kant in the face of thousands of dead? More than mourning, to again reflexively take succour in theory, this feels like melancholia, which Freud says, ‘behaves like an open wound’ (253). Various theorists have argued that this position of wounded melancholia is a better position to inhabit than the healthy healing of mourning in which the trauma is simply overcome, consigned to the past, and the conditions which produced this trauma accepted. As Adorno famously wrote in 1959, recognising that fascism was unvanquished, ‘The past will have been worked through only when the causes of what happened then have been eliminated. Only because the causes continue to exist does the captivating spell of the past remain to this day unbroken.’ (103) The pandemic has not yet been consigned to the past, but it is clear that to truly become the past, to be correctly ‘worked through’, will require much more than a vaccine.
Imagining a post-Covid world, in the manner Boris Johnson wants us to, it seems inevitable that this collective wound will be closed, will ‘heal’. Externally at least it will seem that mourning and remembrance have been carried out correctly, that normality has returned, that the cronyism and governmental mismanagement which led to myriad excess deaths will be accepted. In the announcement of the government’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions Johnson concluded that ‘the end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today.’ (Johnson 2021a) This will not be true for everyone. The pandemic was not simply an unprecedented rupture but intensified already existing social inequalities which produce an uneven distribution of vulnerability. Class, race, gender, disability and age intersect to produce the intensity of both bodily and social vulnerability, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic and mostly ignored in governmental response. As Sarah Reed and William Palmer argue for the Nuffield Trust, ‘the UK has relied heavily on strategies that fail to account for the needs of different populations or place the most vulnerable communities at their centre.’ (Reed and Palmer 2021)
It is not too late to begin to rectify these inequalities within the ongoing Covid response through measures such as increased income support, and temporary accommodation for supported isolation which would mitigate some of the unequal effects of the pandemic. More is needed than a successful vaccination programme and the removal of social restrictions. The work of imagining and building a society that works seriously to overcome, instead of overlooking, pervasive inequalities within healthcare is fundamental for coronavirus to really be consigned to the past.
Ryan Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent researching the politics of healthcare in British fiction.
Adorno, Theodor W. (1998) ‘The Meaning of Working Through the Past,’ in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford. (New York: Columbia University Press)
Freud, Sigmund (1964) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916), eds. James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
Johnson, Boris (2021) ‘Prime Minister’s Statement on Coronavirus (COVID-19): 26 January 2021’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-statement-on-coronavirus-covid-19-26-january-2021> [Accessed 23 February 2021].
Johnson, Boris (2021a) ‘PM statement to the House of Commons on roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions in England: 22 February 2021’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-of-commons-on-roadmap-for-easing-lockdown-restrictions-in-england-22-february-2021> [Accessed 23 February 2021].
Reed, Sarah and William Palmer (2021) “To solitude: Learning from other countries on how to improve compliance with self-isolation”, Nuffield Trust comment <https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/news-item/to-solitude-learning-from-other-countries-on-how-to-improve-compliance-with-self-isolation-1> [Accessed 23 February 2021].
https://www.rememberme2020.uk/ [Accessed 23 February 2021].
One thought on “Covid-19 and Public Mourning”
Thanks for this very thoughtful reflection. It reminds me of an article by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian where he reflected on why the dead from pandemics are not memorialised :
‘A mass illness does not thrive on that kind of remembering [the kind associated with ‘sacrifice’ for a cause in war]… To die of the Spanish flu or COVID-19 is to have suffered the most terrible back luck.’
Guardian, 20th Jan 21