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27 January 2021

Notes on a crisis: As the numbers rise, how do we counteract the risk of numbness and apathy?

Paradoxically, amid so much suffering and hurt, grief has become less visible than ever.

By Elif Shafak

Many years ago when I was living, teaching and writing in Tucson, Arizona, an hour’s drive from the Mexican border, I became friends with a journalist couple. One evening the wife told me a painful story: a few years previously she had given birth to a baby whose heart had stopped just before labour started. After the harrowing experience of stillbirth, in deep emotional pain, she and her husband had crossed the border. They stayed in Mexico for many months because there they felt free to express and experience their grief. She said the dominant culture in the US showed sincere sympathy with people going through bereavement, but equally expected them quickly to “move on”. There was neither time nor space given to grief. Mourning was supposed to be private, personal, invisible. In Mexico it could be, and often was, collective, shared, communal, vocal and visible.

Today, as we reach the tragic threshold of 100,000 Covid deaths, I find myself remembering that couple and thinking whether here, in the UK, we are allowing ourselves the time and space to articulate collective grief. I don’t think so. “Blitz spirit”, invoked as a symbol of resistance and resilience at a time of national crisis, or the old slogan “Keep calm and carry on”, might sound uplifting but they do little for people who need to express their pain, hurt, anxiety and fear.

The pandemic already made it extremely difficult for families to mourn their losses as it took away the right to give their loved ones a proper funeral, a burial rite according to their own customs. During the long weeks of lockdowns and strict measures, it was often the medical staff who listened to the last words or held the hand of a dying patient. Paradoxically, amid so much suffering and hurt, grief became less visible than ever.

There is another reason collective and personal mourning became harder to express and that is the political atmosphere. Politicians do not want us to dwell too much in the “zone of pain” because it is a testament to their own incompetence, failures and endless U-turns. It is a testament to their slowness to take the right decisions at the right time. With grief comes critical questions, and politicians don’t want us to ask them. Questions about the years of austerity and its long-term repercussions; about social, cultural and economic inequalities and the lack of investment in social services. Questions as to why we have one of the worst recorded Covid mortality rates in the world and one of the highest in Europe.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were told that this was a great equaliser and we were all travelling in this rocking boat together. It quickly became evident, however, that this was a lie. Covid did not create social and economic fractures as much as expose existing inequalities. Ethnic minorities were far worse affected by the virus. ­Studies revealed that even within the same city, someone living in a disadvantaged ­community had a much higher chance of contracting the virus and dying compared to someone living in a wealthier area. It also became evident that as jobs disappeared it would be women, younger generations, minorities and immigrants who would suffer more severely.

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It is not only the loss of thousands of precious human lives that as a society we are enduring, but also the loss of life as we knew it. The loss of jobs, opportunities, plans, dreams, moments with friends and families, a sense of safety, rootedness and sometimes mental health. Not talking about what all this does to our collective and individual psyche isn’t going to help us. Breaking the silence will. I worry that as numbers go up we are becoming increasingly numb inside. The statistics of Covid are horrifying but numbers are not like emotions, they do not really register. We must, therefore, find ways to overcome apathy. We must challenge the culture of hyper-individuality and greedy neoliberalism that does not pay attention to things that cannot be measured in money. We must be able to express our emotions, including the ones we find frightening. One inspiring project is the Forest of Memories, which aims to plant a tree for every life lost to Covid. The scheme respects human pain and its need to be ­visible and tangible, but also offers rejuvenation and hope.

This is a major crossroads. A moment of radical change and rebuilding. We need to become more active, engaged citizens; choose knowledge over information; internationalism over nationalism; and pluralistic democracy over jingoistic populism. We will carry on, but not immediately and not the way we did before. We must first break the walls of silence, allow this collective pain and hurt to be heard, honour grief, and give time to those saplings in the forest to grow.

This article is from our “Notes on a crisis” series

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost