Why We Should Collectively Mourn the COVID Dead

To have the state acknowledge the deaths might well give us the necessary sense of purpose we need to surmount this period in time.

In the past month or so, there have been repeated news reports of how entire pages in newspapers are filled with obituaries, how attempts to number the dead are failing and journalists are trying to put together numbers by counting the dead listed in hospital registers, those awaiting their final rites in ambulances outside cremation grounds and cemeteries, and so on. There is no certainty about how many have died and while we publish a set of numbers every day, those are recognised to be only a part of the whole, a whole we are never likely to know.

Why should we remember the dead (when I use the word ‘dead’ here, I refer to those who have died in various national events and disasters)? And why should we remember, in particular, the COVID dead? Can there be a collective at all: the “COVID dead”? After all, they died as individuals, their families mourn them as individuals. Is there a single unifying thread knitting them all together, as there would be if we were to speak of those who died in a war, or due to genocidal events or even as victims of a disaster, man-made or natural? In one sense, we can speak of the COVID dead as having died of ‘natural causes’: they died of an illness, transmitted by a virus. So, in some ways they are similar to the thousands who died of AIDS or malaria or TB or cancer.

Yet, are they?

I believe that the “COVID dead” should be seen differently, not as having died only of an illness, but because their deaths are revelatory of structural inequities, of systemic failures and of a failure as a nation to have enabled life, rather than death. It is only in this context that we can speak of memorialising the “COVID dead”, as only thus can we see their deaths, gasping for oxygen, waiting for a hospital bed, an oxygen concentrator, a ventilator, a medicine that might’ve helped them, as a national tragedy. Otherwise, their deaths remain multiple instances, multiplied into lakhs, of familial losses and tragedies, personal sorrows and mourning.

If we were to see the ongoing wave of deaths as a national tragedy, then we need to highlight each “COVID dead”, whether in hospital or at home, in a town or a village, whether on a ventilator or hooked up to an oxygen concentrator, as one in a collective and it is in this collectivisation, as the numbers mount, that the need for memorialisation becomes imperative. Because each time we see a person who counts among the “COVID dead” as singular, my family member or yours, in Delhi or in Kerala, in a village in Telangana or in Pune, we open ourselves to the grief and mourning we perform in our individual or familial capacities and we leech away the significance of what it means to a country when so many die of the same reason, and are easily robbed of their significance, as individuals and as the collective “COVID dead”. It is only in mourning them collectively that we can acknowledge that we failed as a country, and that this failure brought about their deaths.

It is not enough for elected representatives, even the prime minister, to become “emotional” while speaking about the COVID dead: what we need is an acknowledgement as a nation, led by national leaders, that so many lakhs need not have died, that the toll could have been far lesser, and that we failed. It is only with this acknowledgement, of people’s unnecessary deaths, of the failure of all systems of governance at multiple levels, that we can begin on the path to improving health services, that we can invest the deaths with meaning, instead of seeing them as an inconvenient statistic which dims our glory on the world stage. It is only by mourning the “COVID dead” as a collective, as a nation that we can make these acknowledgements, that we can make it possible for those who lost their family members to believe that those deaths have not been utterly meaningless, that those who died will not be forgotten, will not be just statistics but that each of them retains importance and meaning, in their suffering and death.

In January 2021, when the pandemic was held to be waning in India, an online memorial was set up for families and individuals to memorialise their dead. The National Covid Memorial enables individuals to submit a memorial for a person, which is then put up on the website, after it has been vetted. The website attempts to give mourners a virtual space wherein they can bid farewell to their loved ones, share their memories and pay tributes to those who died. It also gives others mourning the same individual, the option to lay flowers, light candles or leave a note, all of course, virtually. However, it still remains a memorial to individuals, by individuals.

A man mourns as he sits next to the burning pyre of a relative, who died from COVID-19, during his cremation, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India May 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Commemorating death

But whom do we mourn as a nation, as a collective?

The first answer to that will always be ‘Our leaders’: beginning with Mahatma Gandhi, we have made a spectacle of our mourning, through Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, the members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, regional satraps such as MGR, Jayalalithaa, Jyoti Basu, Bal Thackeray, NTR: public funerals and annual commemorations are part of the nation’s mourning rituals as also flags flown at half-mast, suitably mournful music on government TV and radio channels and such.

Apart from national and regional political leaders, thousands have flocked to the obsequies of religious leaders such as Sathya Sai Baba or Mother Teresa. Only in the case of the deaths of soldiers do we, as a nation, mourn the commoner in his death, publicly, even occasionally highlighting their names. Though even for them, our memorialisation is ritualistic, performed usually on pre-determined dates and times.

The prime minister offers tributes every Republic Day, in memory of the fallen soldiers, earlier at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate, and from 2020 at the National War memorial, where the names of soldiers who fell in battle are engraved on the walls. When performed in an impromptu manner, on occasions when India’s borders are threatened or when the strength of the Indian army has been displayed conclusively, it has always had tremendous symbolic value, and helped to galvanise nationalistic feelings.

Also Read: ‘Lest We Forget’: Why India Must Remember Its Present Horror

No right to mourn?

Observing such public commemoration is true of deaths that might cause ‘social unrest’: the most well-known rape victim in India, Nirbhaya had a “private funeral. . .held amid tight security”; the cremation of the Hathras victim was conducted in the dead of night, her family denied the right to perform her funeral rites. This is true of the thousands of deaths that take place due to caste or communal violence in India as well, the funerals are usually high security events, it being necessary to ‘maintain peace’.

And for all the others, whether killed in disasters, man-made or natural, or riots or incidents of caste or communal violence, we grieve but we do not make memorials. We have not, as a nation, made memorials, or mourned those killed in the Partition riots; nor those in all the riots that have taken place in the intervening years, including last year’s Northeast Delhi riots; nor do we have a national memorial or monument for the 15,000 (and counting) victims of the Bhopal Gas leak of 1984. The 10,000 (at the very least, though others insist that the toll was far higher) Indian victims of the 2004 Tsunami, however, have several memorials with and without individual names etched on them. These monuments memorialising the Tsunami victims can be seen at various places in Tamil Nadu including Kanyakumari, Velankanni, Colachel, Kottilpadu and Manakkudi.

A memorial for victims of the 2004 Indian Tsunami in Kanyakumari. Photo: Indiancorrector/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

A refusal to mourn?

Which brings me back to where I started: Why is it that we do not grieve as a nation? I ask this especially in the light of the impulse of many nations worldwide to commemorate their dead. Compare this reluctance to the Holocaust memorials, across Europe and Israel, as also online, where so many of the victims are remembered; the memorials to the Vietnam veterans or the 9/11 memorial, the Srebenica genocide memorial, the Cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims at Hiroshima, the Kigali Genocide memorial in Rwanda; the list goes on. And though the first Partition Museum in India was established in 2017 (by a not-for-profit organisation, not by the government), there is still no annual memorialisation for the millions who died during the tumultuous days of 1947. The victims who died then, and those who died in successive waves of riots across this country, have never been offered public recognition.

While we may be able to argue that mourning those who died in communal (genocidal) violence is difficult, as the status of victim and perpetrator is always complicated by community affiliations, the same can hardly be true of those who died due to the gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984. And thus, we come to the three lakh (and counting) who have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic in India.

A comparison can be made, with the US which was outstripping all other nations in terms of suffering and death. “The [COVID] memorial marks the first large-scale acknowledgment of Covid-19’s massive toll on individuals, families and communities across the US,” wrote The Guardian about the memorialisation that was organised by the Biden inaugural committee, on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration. When the next milestone of 500,000 deaths was crossed in late February, the president addressed the nation, had flags fly at half-mast, and cathedral and church bells tolled for the dead. Both the American president and vice president spoke about the need to acknowledge the lives lost, to remember and grieve, and thus to heal.

Why do I invoke the US as a comparison to India? Other nations did not perform these public acts of mourning, so why should India? For one, they did not lose as many people and secondly, we in India have been invested in the symbolic, from the beginning of the pandemic, with our banging of pots and pans, clapping of hands, lighting of diyas and such. If the symbolic was central to how we functioned then, surely the symbolic might be relevant even today: a moment when we acknowledge the lives lost, the grief and heartbreak of millions, and in doing so we (might be able to) come together as a people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lights a lamp during his ‘diya jalao’ call. Photo: PTI

To have the state acknowledge the deaths might well give us the necessary sense of purpose we need to surmount this period in time, when the failure of the health system sees us floundering as a nation, with the virus spreading through small towns and villages, with the dead piling up in crematoria and cemeteries, with bodies floating down the Ganga.

Is it that we only mourn our larger-than-life figures, preferring to invest them with greatness and finding in them the best avatar of the “Indian”? If yes, we are in line with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statements about how the ordinary individual is willing to give himself up for the sake of the hero:

“They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. They sun themselves in the great man’s light, and feel it to be their own element. They cast the dignity of man from their downtrod selves upon the shoulders of a hero, and will perish to add one drop of blood to make that great heart beat, those giant sinews combat and conquer. He lives for us, and we live in him.”

If we are thus, then there is no need for us to mourn the three lakhs who have died of COVID-19. As long as the leaders survive, as long as their “giant sinews” combat and conquer, we need not remember those who died, or their suffering, as a national loss. We can look past it, grieve in our personal capacity for friends and family members whom we may have lost, but we do not need to memorialise them as a nation or grieve together with all those others who are also grieving for their dear ones.

It is only if we are convinced of the intrinsic worth of each individual, it is only if we see each life and all lives as meaningful that we need to think in terms of collective mourning. In the absence of that understanding, private grief is all that is possible. Or necessary.

A long time ago, John Donne said, “[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” But if we see only as far as our loss, if we see the innumerable deaths as removed from us, then why should we mourn as a nation?