Important caveat: without wanting to sound remotely self-important, I need to point out that I write this simply as John Tomsett, British citizen.
The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.
Today at least forty people an hour will die with COVID-19 in England. Each one will die alone. The same number died yesterday in similarly dreadful circumstances. And the day before that, and the day before that.
Any of us who have lived any length of time will know what it is to lose someone we love. My dad died when I was twenty. My sister died three years ago. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years.
If you have lived, you have lost.
The process of moving from bereavement to acceptance is an uneven one, but in most circumstances it begins by saying a final goodbye, either at the bedside or at the funeral.
But those who die in hospital today will die alone. And they will be buried or cremated whilst their relatives watch on a Zoom call.
It is hard to imagine the agony of all those involved.
And then there’s that hand-holding nurse.
That nurse will call the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to break the deadly news. Over and over again, today, tomorrow, and the next day. Deep into next week she will still be making calls to distraught relatives.
That nurse will work a 14 hour day, go home, sleep and return the next to go through the same terrible process of managing people’s last moments on this earth.
That nurse is unlikely to have sufficient personal protective equipment for tending patients in the COVID-19 ward. She will live every minute of her working day wondering whether she will contract the virus, and, like 19 of her fellow NHS workers, suffer the kind of death she witnesses daily.
Here we are, then, with the country’s death figures yet to abate, and little clear sense of what is actually being decided on our behalf by our country’s leaders to counter the pandemic.
At the afternoon Downing Street briefings, I am not even sure the daily death count is announced. You have to calculate how much the total has increased from the day before.
The fact is, our daily death count has eclipsed all others in Europe. Indeed, as I write, on the Andrew Marr Show the Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar, talking about COVID-19 related fatalities, says that it’s “likely” Britain will be “one of the worst, if not the worst, country affected in Europe”.
Yet a couple of weeks ago we raised our eyebrows at Spain, as footage showed A&E facilities with patients sprawled across the floor in the corridors. The people of Lombardy were held up as the victims of Italian ineptness. We saw convoys of Italian army vehicles ferrying the dead to mortuaries under cover of darkness.
The thing is, for me, life goes on over this Easter weekend. So far as Saturdays go, I had a lovely day. I sorted out some old photos, went for a walk by the river, fell asleep on our bench in the sunshine, had a drink with mates – via laptop – and finished the day watching the final two episodes of the first series of The Sopranos. I spent my day in a virus-free bubble.
Meanwhile, 40 people died every hour.
I am truly glad that Boris Johnson has taken COVID-19 on the chin and is up in bed reading Tintin cartoons. But I would rather find out, for instance, why flights from New York – aka Covid-19 central – continue to touch down in Heathrow hourly and their passengers are allowed through immigration and out, unchecked, into the UK quicker than you can say the word “quarantine”.
This is a national emergency. People are dying in their thousands. Who is asking the hard questions? What “science” are we following? Whose “science” are we following?
The media has found it near impossible to hold our politicians to account for their decision-making. Too few are reporting the awfulness of what is happening, in our country, today, right now, this minute.
This is absolutely the wrong time for party political points scoring, but it is the right time, surely, to recall Parliament. The relatives of today’s dead, at least, have a right to know what’s really going on.