isAt the very start of the pandemic, as the virus was just starting to take its toll, grieving family members I spoke to all mentioned the indescribable pain of one thing: not being able to cry together. The restrictions meant that funerals were rushed, affairs uncrowded – where the few family members who attended could not hug or gather afterward.
The most basic comforts of mourning, such as sitting in the same room with others and recounting the lives of those who had been lost, honoring them with memories, was denied. The trauma of suspended mourning fell hard on the parents of the dead.
I am particularly haunted by the account of the mother of a doctor who died in March. Baffled by the sudden loss of her previously healthy son and unable to cope with his death, she sought out her youngest child – who had isolated herself in their own home. She would come to her room to chat, to offer food, to ask for help in the house, to be repelled by a young man who was now afraid for his mother’s life added to the pain of losing his brother. He yelled at her in agonizing frustration to stay away every time she came to his locked door. But she kept coming back nonetheless, in a recurring loop of unaltered grief.
The necessary cruelty of funeral restrictions has been compounded by the government’s refusal to recognize the scale of the calamity. What should be a grieving nation of tens of thousands of lives is rather a nation subjected to callous triumphalism. On the same day that the latest ONS data showed the UK has the highest excessive death rate in Europe, nearly 58,000, Boris Johnson hailed the government’s response to the pandemic as a ” massive success ”. A week earlier, he had said that the supposed containment of the pandemic had demonstrated the “sheer power” of the British union. The deaths have been relegated to a footnote, a regrettable but inevitable loss.
But the loss was preventable, and that is precisely why we are not allowed to mourn publicly and together as a nation. Time and again we have been told that the pandemic is a war, the dead its victims in combat. But we honor our war dead, we praise their bravery, their sacrifices; we put faces to their stories, we reward them posthumously, we erect memorials, we pay homage to their lives.
Coronavirus victims are not getting any of this. Not even the respect for a flag at half mast, or a public pastoral address every time the country takes another dark milestone. The only public gesture, a minute’s silence in honor of key deceased workers, was a gesture in which the government had to be humiliated after Unison, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives launched a campaign to April.
This type of action has become the only way to get the government to perform its functions. Even the financial and legal concessions to those in the NHS who were fighting and dying to help others had to be appreciated by the wicked fist of the government. This lack of largesse and empathy, both for those who perished and for those they left behind, is cynical. If we don’t recognize the pain the country is going through, we can avoid the truth buried under propaganda – that many of the excessive deaths are the result of political incompetence. The lies and false positivity must therefore continue.
The UK’s inability to respond adequately to the pandemic is now well documented. Each month of the past five has brought its own theme – the parody of the delayed lockdown in March, the inability to provide PPE in April, below testing targets in May. With each of these fiascos, as lives were lost, the government stepped up the rhetoric of victory. As the death rate peaked, we were told we were going “in the right direction”; the shambolic test and trace program would be “a beat of the world”. As confidence levels plummeted after the Dominic Cummings saga, Johnson said he was “very proud” of the government’s response.
The boast was linked to the implication that the criticism was not patriotic. The hectic Victory in Europe Day celebrations were put at the service of the record of government of a locked-down nation replenishing the bravery of previous generations. “We will meet again,” sung in the deserted streets of England, and mixed with the synthetic mirth of government to create the soundtrack of the last few months – forced optimism, muffled grief. Joyful music echoes over the empty fairground of our country.
Not content with withholding gestures of respect for the victims of the pandemic, the government goes further and transfers the blame for their deaths to various suitable targets. Last week, Britain’s black and ethnic minority communities were accused of “not taking the pandemic seriously” by a Tory MP. Johnson, himself the epitome of irresponsibility when he bragged about shaking hands with coronavirus patients, declined to condemn the comments. In the same breath with which it sows such discord, the government calls for a national unity which it believes can only be achieved by putting pressure, by going back to the pub on “Super Saturday”, by eating out to help. .
But what unites us all is loss and the inability to comfort one another. Perhaps one day, when the pandemic overtakes us, and this government is socially removed from power, other leaders will recognize the magnitude of Britain’s mourning and honor it. In the meantime, the British public will once again, unsupported and unrecognized by their government, find a way to heal their wounds.
• Nesrine Malik is a columnist for The Guardian