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When will the government break its silence over those who have died from Covid?

Postat la Jan 22, 2021

S ome 100,000 people have now died from Covid in the UK – almost one person in every 660. Such numbers are hard to comprehend. Several weeks ago, when 78,000 deaths had been recorded, BBC Newsnight anchor Kirsty Wark closed the programme with a video of the Olympic Stadium during the 2012 games, full to its 80,000 capacity, to demonstrate the scale of this loss. The government has so far made no mention of plans to commemorate these deaths, and several weeks into England’s third national lockdown, many people are now enduring another epidemic: grief with no real outlet.

Despite these numbers, some people are still denying the risks of Covid-19. While getting a haircut shortly before restrictions were imposed in my area in late October, my barber said something we’ve heard so many times before: “It’s no worse than the flu. I don’t know anyone to have died from it, do you?” Although most of us can extend our empathy beyond our immediate social network, stories of Covid deniers suggest that some people will not be convinced about the risks of this virus until they’re personally affected by it.

Whether you know somebody who has died from Covid-19 partly depends upon how many people you know, a number that varies dramatically. To get a ballpark figure, we can use a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Columbia, which found that the average person knows 600 other people by name. This social network might include co-workers, acquaintances, school friends, neighbours, former colleagues, your plumber, GP, and so on. Working on the basis of this estimate, we can use probability theory to calculate that if each of us know an average of 600 people, and more than 100,000 people have already died in the UK from Covid, then roughly 60% of us may know someone who has died from Covid (here, the chance of having died from Covid is calculated by dividing 100,000 by the size of the UK population as a whole).

But averages don’t give us the full picture, which is more complicated in reality. Our social networks are highly clustered by demographic factors such as age, ethnicity, geography and socioeconomic status, and the people we know tend to be in the same demographic groups as we are. Some groups have been far more affected by Covid than others; we know that key workers are at a greater risk of catching Covid, that the risk of death increases exponentially with age, and that black people are about four times more likely to die from Covid than white people in England and Wales, as a result of social factors such as poverty and racial discrimination. Deaths are also twice as likely to occur in the most deprived local authorities as in the least deprived. This means that, tragically, communities who were already disadvantaged before the current crisis – people living in poor areas, ethnic minority communities and the elderly – are now those more likely to be wracked by grief.

How we perceive the pandemic is shaped in part by the impact it’s had on those in our immediate social circles. This is hardly a new concept. It’s more difficult to empathise with loss if all we see are large numbers. We often have greater sympathy for a single death, even more so when that death is given a face and a name. When the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean when fleeing the Syrian civil war, was published in newspapers in 2015, donations to the Swedish Red Cross jumped over a hundredfold in the days following its publication. An estimated 250,000 people had already died as a result of the war, yet prior to the publication of the image, engagement with the crisis was minimal.

This response to large numbers is the same for our current crisis. The morbid repetition of daily death statistics can numb us to the scale of this tragedy. When presented with huge figures, we tend to focus less on the actual number itself and instead concentrate on the direction and magnitude of the change compared to the previous day: is it getting worse? Is it getting better?

But behind each number is the death of a person who leaves behind a grieving family and friends. When the US reached 100,000 deaths, with little response from the Trump administration, the New York Times published 1,000 names of those lost on its front page. The Guardian’s Lost to the virus series has likewise shone a light on the individuals whose lives were cut short by Covid-19. But the government’s response to these losses has been one of muted indifference; there has been no talk of a national day for mourning, nor discussion of memorialising these deaths.

As the pandemic goes on, the chance that someone we know will die from Covid will grow. Some people, however, may never experience that loss. It’s therefore crucial that we empathise with the grief of others and do all we can to prevent spread of the virus. And we need to commemorate the lives of those who have died. The charity Marie Curie has called for a national day to reflect, grieve and remember those who lost their lives on 23 March, one year on from England’s first national lockdown. The government should follow this example and break its silence about our collective grief. We all must remember that daily death figures aren’t just numbers: they’re someone’s parent, grandparent or dear friend.

  • Billy Quilty is a research assistant at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases