X Close

Not every death is a tragedy We object to to the 'herd immunity' policy because we like to pretend everyone can live forever

We must learn to walk in the shadow of death. Credit: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

We must learn to walk in the shadow of death. Credit: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images


May 8, 2020   6 mins

As Britain limps through a sixth week of lockdown, are we all still pretending we can live forever? As the debate about how to defeat coronavirus rages on, I’ve found myself thinking about how my grandmother faced her own death.

She was intimately acquainted with mortality. She’d been a doctor and a farmer, and had by old age outlived her brother, two husbands and three of her four children as well as most of her friends. Even so, confronting her own decline into Alzheimer’s took tremendous courage. While she still had capacity, my mum and I helped her go through the details of a document that listed her medical preferences, for when she no longer had the capacity to advocate for herself.

It was not easy reading: a grim catalogue of scenarios such as seizures and strokes, defibrillation, ventilation, and the circumstances in which she would like medical treatment or palliative care. Despite her tough pragmatism, and her faith in life after death, I remember how tense and miserable she was the day we got the document notarised.

Some time later, after dementia claimed her once razor-sharp mind, she fell out of bed in the nursing home and broke her finger. Under safeguarding guidelines, the staff were obliged to call an ambulance, and the paramedics were in turn obliged to take her to hospital. These rules could not be sidestepped, despite everyone involved knowing that for someone in their 90s, with advanced dementia and a minor injury, transfer to hospital was likely to cause extreme distress and could even be a death sentence.

Happily, the document detailing her preferences absolved staff and paramedics alike of their reluctant obligation to follow these rules even against their own clinical judgement. They splinted the finger in situ, it mended just fine, and she was spared a confusing and frightening experience.

We have been considerably less clear-sighted than my grandmother about facing the implications of coronavirus. On the surface, much of the response to the government’s measures has treated the situation as a continuation of the Brexit wars. But beneath this displacement activity lurks a consensus that cuts across culture war lines for all but the youngest and most staunchly libertarian: swivel-eyed horror at the realisation that we haven’t, after all, vanquished death.

Of course we know in theory that death comes for us all eventually. But for the most part, our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is. While volunteering as a bereavement counsellor, I learned that some GPs will prescribe antidepressants barely days after a loss, as though normal grief at the death of a loved one is a medical condition. And one of the most contentious areas of debate among doctors is how to manage relatives’ pleas for life-prolonging interventions for a patient, even in cases where there is no hope and such measures will only cause pain and distress to a dying person.

Or consider the way fatal accidents are often described in tabloid headlines as ‘tragic’. If we read that in the Aristotelian sense, it would imply such fatalities came about due to a flaw in the character of the deceased, and that the pity and fear evoked by their demise should be treated as a moral experience for readers.

Of course, applying Aristotle to tabloid idiom is overkill, and in contemporary usage ‘tragic’ commonly just means ‘very sad’. But the term retains a trace of the classical understanding of a tragedy as more than simply random misfortune. We can see this in the way that random misfortunes described as ‘tragic’ in tabloid newspapers often seem to prompt a search for a moral lesson. ‘Tragic accident’ stories frequently trigger a campaign for new safety regulations, designed to prevent any such misfortune from recurring. Over time, this dynamic has made a substantial contribution to the regulatory environment of daily life, from sensible measures such as compulsory seatbelts to more contested ones such as councils ripping up cobbled streets.

But if we apply it to a pandemic whose mode of transmission is unclear, for which we have no vaccine and no very reliable treatment, and which kills people, it’s clear we’re going to run into trouble. What kind of rules can forestall misfortune on the scale of Covid-19?

This quandary in turn helps explain why the government’s initial response to the pandemic (which arguably it is still following, albeit more circumspectly) was so politically unpalatable. This initial response followed roughly the lines set out in the government’s pandemic flu planning documents. The assumption was that transmission would be impossible to contain, so the aim was to slow the spread, ensure healthcare systems are not overwhelmed, and over time to reach a state where enough people are immune that replication would fade away: ‘herd immunity’.

But from the outrage that erupted when Boris tried to explain this, you’d think it was a calculated plan to kill off the old and frail. Surely we could do more. ‘More’ turned out to be total lockdown — an approach that still commands widespread support with the British public. A recent Opinium survey suggested that even the barest hint that the government might be considering relaxing lockdown has caused public approval of Johnson’s handling of the crisis to dip. Most of us, it seems, want rules that will prevent any further tragic deaths.

Except lockdown won’t prevent coronavirus deaths, just slow down their rate of occurrence. Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity.

In earlier centuries, everyone experienced the death of loved ones, often of ailments that are preventable today. Funerary practices reflected this familiarity with death, and my grandmother’s wishes belonged in this tradition. When she died, at the age of 96, my mum laid out and washed her body — an ancient practice traditionally carried out by female relatives of the deceased, but barely followed today. Grandma believed that souls stay close to a body for three days after death, and asked for a wake at my mum’s home, with an open coffin. I stayed with my mum for those three days, and it was a surreal but strangely intimate time. Grandma did indeed feel very close to us.

Her death came shortly before my own wedding, and I remember sitting at my mum’s kitchen table, with Grandma in her coffin in the adjacent room, making table favours from tiny packets of wildflower seeds for the wedding breakfast. Joy and sorrow seemed woven together, in a strange in-between time when Grandma wasn’t quite gone, and my new phase of life hadn’t quite started. It was where I said my goodbyes to someone I’d loved very much, and for me the funeral seemed almost an afterthought.

Over my grandmother’s lifetime, hygiene and medicine advanced so dramatically that it must have seemed for a while as though life expectancy would go on rising forever. As recently as 2018, breathless articles were imagining humans living to 1000, while transhumanists continue their quest to defeat death by uploading human consciousness to a computer.

As death has receded, so too has our willingness to look it in the face. Today, barely 10% of families keep a corpse at home between the death and funeral. Funerals themselves have become arms-length affairs, with the deceased mostly whisked away shortly after death is confirmed and only reappearing for a swift ceremony before vanishing again on a conveyor belt to be cremated.

But now, like nothing since the two world wars, the pandemic has brought us into a mass confrontation with the mortality we imagined we’d conquered, or at least indefinitely postponed. And as death has returned to hover at the edge of our peripheral vision, our habitual mass aversion to it has shaped the field of acceptable political response to the virus.

It’s no coincidence that less wealthy nations have in many cases weighed the risk of pandemic against the certainty of starvation for subsistence communities, and decided against imposing lockdowns. When death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different.

But in nations where death seemed on the back foot, it’s all very well for scientists to repeat that the only way out is via herd immunity, but it’s not something we seem willing to countenance. Not yet, anyway. Accepting it means allowing risk and death back into the room. So almost without exception we remain crouched in lockdown, a frozen state that addresses our terror of death by banning nearly everything that makes life worth living.

If we’re to find a way out of this state, we’ll need to face not just the likelihood of successive waves of infections, but also the fact that some misfortunes are not tragic in the classical sense, just very sad. Sometimes there isn’t a moral lesson.

No rules can be devised that will banish death altogether. And no amount of prophylactic regulation will stop the coronavirus in its tracks, only slow it and try to ensure medical facilities are not overwhelmed. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever have a vaccine or cure. Until that changes, if we are to begin living again, we may need to re-learn some forgotten lessons about how to walk in the valley of the shadow of death.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

moveincircles

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

85 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
jomonson
jomonson
4 years ago

Thank you for writing this,it made me weep and it is an important conversation. I do believe that as a society we need to become better at ageing and dying. We are so avoidant of ageing and death and as a 50 year old woman, I can feel the pressure now to stay “looking young.” I believe that something like half of our health care bill goes to keeping people who were already going to die, alive for another few weeks. I am in South Africa, a context where there are children growing stunted due to hunger.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
4 years ago

I couldn’t agree more.

Unless there is a medical break through the virus will, sadly, lead to the death of everyone who is susceptible to it.

Nations who are currently celebrating holding the virus off at enormous cost, both financial and excess non COVID related deaths, are likely only delaying the inevitable.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

you seem to be suggesting that everyone will come into contact with it. I am not sure your grounds for believing that. A virus is a parasite which does not survive for long without a host to enable it to reproduce. If someone survives it it will mean that they have killed it off. if a virus fails to find a host it will dies within, at most, a few hours. “Holding off” the virus is the same thing as defeating it

krista4h
krista4h
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Not so long as there is one host still left to infect which there will always be. Herd immunity is really the only answer IMHO.

edjjcarver
edjjcarver
4 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

All circumstances to emerge from this virus are grim, but I agree with you Matthew. We can’t rely on every country to shut out the virus for at least 18months, and even then there probably won’t be a vaccine. Thank goodness Sweden stood strong, as if they’d not been the outlier on strategy, I fear we’d be in an even worse mess.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

I don’t conflate a healthy attitude to death and the old-fashioned practice of keeping the body of a dead family member in the house for a few days. In the end, what made them the person we loved has gone at that point; the body is merely a lump of flesh to be disposed of. I agree with you, however, that we must try to become less risk averse as a society. In so many ways, we would benefit from a healthier attitude to risk, and this must be fostered from a young age. We must also, I believe, try to curtail our obsession with healthcare. We have elevated the NHS to an entity which must be worshipped, and fly on the wall documentaries about A and E departments, babies being born etc abound. Sure, some of this stuff is interesting, but the trend seems to betray a need to sanctify birth and preserving life; birth is pure and death is dirty and disgusting. In the end, birth and death have always happened, and always will, and will always cancel each other out. We should get on with living, rather than concerning ourselves with its start and end points.

There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born

Bob Dylan- The Ballad of Hollis Brown

r j
r j
4 years ago

Great essay and good points. Unfortunately a significant proportion of NHS staff believe what they see on media. Your prudent observation reinforces my observation that their insight and breadth of vision is frequently poor. They fail to treat the eminently treatable and deploy pointless effort in the clearly insoluble. Decision making is challenging so the default is “obligation” within the largely unthinking system of care. The performance of the UK in recent weeks has been superficially clearly appalling regardless of the European comparisons. A critical error in recent weeks is the sending back of infected elderly to ill equipped care homes (rather than the largely empty Nightingale projects) where staff are wholly incapable of dealing with even the simplest transmission risk. They are for profit in the main and staff in care homes, most given basic wage, cannot be blamed. Sending infection to closed communities is frankly a heinous error but the hospital ED and ITU mantra has always been clearing beds. The worst consequence of all is that change in the NHS will now be even harder to achieve given the recent public applading of mostly ineffective intervention (crude mechanical ventilation will possibly be seen as actively harmful when correctly analysed by those other than. the units talking up their own techniques) in those sadly in a steep and unrecognised spiral of decline.

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
4 years ago

The corpse of a loved one is not ‘merely a lump of flesh to be disposed of’. Don’t be so quick so dismiss ritual and notions of the sacred just because they are difficult to articulate logically.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago
Reply to  Julian Hartley

Quite right. I typed this before I’d thought that bit through. I guess it depends on your relationship to that person as well. Apologies if I’ve offended anyone.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

I think you’re too quick to apologise. Understood in its proper contest, the remark is not offensive in the least.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
4 years ago

I don’t conflate a healthy attitude to death and the old-fashioned practice of keeping the body of a dead family member in the house for a few days. In the end, what made them the person we loved has gone at that point; the body is merely a lump of flesh to be disposed of.

Not sure I agree. I was particularly moved by Mary Harrington’s description of her grandmother’s death, the washing, following by the three days including her time around her mom’s kitchen table with the coffin in the room nearby.

I keep goats and what I have learn is that there is human time and there is goat time, which I respect – especially early morning, at milking. I think death is much the same. It’s a transition. It’s gradual and therefore, I believe, enormously important to honour, as did the Harringtons.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
4 years ago

Excellent essay, well done. Can you have a chat with some of the others who write for this publication and try and talk some sense into them?

I have noticed, post Brexit, that a great many people who became sensible by arguing in favour of sovereignty and democracy in the years since 2016 have returned to their original flabby, woolly positions on everything else, during lockdown.

Keep banging the drum for reality and honesty.

Paul Ridley-Smith
Paul Ridley-Smith
4 years ago

Excellent piece. Part of the reason is the imperative for political leaders to be seen as compassionate, to put people first etc. A failure to do so damns the leader in the eyes of many. So they focus on distress and its alleviation at a scale people can understand – and the “tragic” death of an individual is the most compelling. More than the death of thousands from smoking, or road accidents, or even cancer. In NZ our Prime Minister has determined that her focus is to stop every “tragic” COVID death – and made the political judgement to put this above any amorphous concept of net welfare and certainly refused to engage in a debate about the relative importance of “tragic” death, net welfare and the economy.

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
4 years ago

Retracting..

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
4 years ago

Yes as a New Zealander living in the UK I was appalled at the pronouncement that NZ was going to cut itself off from the world beyond Australia. That’s not the country I grew up in.

Mandy Allman
Mandy Allman
4 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

I am a brit living in NZ for 28 years. I think NZ took the opportunity to close its borders because it can. Not everywhere has that capability or political will. Whether it was right or wrong will continue to be debated. However in NZ the spread of covid was slowed, hospitals were not overwhelmed, etc. So goals were achieved. However I think the greatest gain has been to remind ourselves of the basics that we learned from our grandparents – if you’re unwell stay home, look after yourself, don’t spread your bugs, wash your hands regularly, handshakes are safer than hugs (sometimes!). This level of self care and respect for others get beaten out of us in the pressure to be at work all the time. I truly hope that the all the people in the world reflect on whether we need to be so frantic and busy all the time. Death is a given, let’s consider how we live life.

Dave M
Dave M
4 years ago

And one very real problem becomes “what happens when the borders open?”

On top of the predicted worse case of 25% unemployment and the excess deaths that will inevitably follow we are now hearing (although not in our national media for some reason) that we may have to keep the borders closed (or a 14 day quarantine for ALL arrivals) for 10 years.

Our economy is dreadfully damaged, maybe irreparably but certainly for generations and for what? To live isolated from the rest of the world for a decade or to stave off the inevitable arrival of the virus when the borders are reopened.

We also have a government that is not willing to let a good crisis go to waste and is now intent on using the virus as an excuse for its avowed social engineering policies and Venezuelan-style wealth redistribution as well as pursuing a divisive race-based agenda.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago

The response to “herd immunity” may be influenced by language. In the English language it brings to mind the associated phrase “thinning the herd” while the use of the word “herd” suggests we are all cattle being led to the slaughter. Are the same kinds of association evident in other languages? If not, might this explain much of the visceral response in the English-speaking world to the idea?

Guy Johnson
Guy Johnson
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

How about “Community immunity” ?

geo.hill
geo.hill
4 years ago
Reply to  Guy Johnson

Gentler…for sure but means the same. This is really the problem with politicians…they don’t know how to ‘sell’ anything.
As soon as the words ‘Herd Immunity’ were uttered I knew that it would be met by horror and panic.
Of course the media played their part in the ensuing nonsense
This time next year will be time to study the effects of this virus and how it has affected the UK

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
4 years ago
Reply to  Guy Johnson

The word Community is so overdone it now just sounds a bit lefty..

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
4 years ago
Reply to  Guy Johnson

Oh no, sounds like a politically correct term devised by a sociologist!

andy young
andy young
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Absolutely! The immediate reaction is “How dare you! I ain’t no frigging cow!” Words matter, because they can be extremely emotive, so should be chosen carefully.

Tim Molloy
Tim Molloy
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Good point. I heard many react by saying ‘we’re being treated like guinea pigs’ perhaps imagining us all being unwittingly part of some animal experiment. In this highly individualised age nobody likes to be labelled in any group either, so the idea of simply being a part of a ‘herd’, rather than a unique person, upset many I think. That said there was a need to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed and if nothing had been done the scenes in hospitals would surely have resembled the Bergamo experience, where many ran out of oxygen. So a balance is needed and that is hard to achieve because of the points the author has made, we just don’t like to talk about death. I have tried to discuss the need for perspective – eg. number of total deaths vs number of covid deaths – on bulletin boards like this and generally get shouted down, its refreshing to read so many sensible comments.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
4 years ago

This is why I refuse to be locked down when everyone else goes back to normality, even though I am 72 and have respiratory problems. A life on hold is not a life and the choice about how to live it should be mine. At 72 I cannot afford to miss springs and summers. I’d rather live those I have left to the full.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

Quite right.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
4 years ago

Fabulous article. I’m an ER doc and son of an 80-yr-old mom with a chronic cancer, and an 85yr-old mum-in-law with bad lungs. I’m hoping both make it through this fine, but I’m realistic about risks, including the risk to me and my older, asthmatic wife. Nobody lives forever, and the prospect of spending the next few years in a type of perpetual semi-house-arrest does not weigh out as making sense to me.

H Cameron
H Cameron
4 years ago

Well said.

Kevin Ford
Kevin Ford
4 years ago

What a lovely piece.

I do agree that the mass panic over corona virus was intimately connected to a society in full retreat from the inevitability of death. It is the only way to understand the massive overreaction and loss of all proportion.

Medicine is seen as our saviour from death. Death is increasingly equated with a failure of medicine.

The search for a vaccine is another sign of this – looking to science to save us. Unfortunately vaccines for corona viruses tend to be only partially effective. So the vaccine may not save us – even if we are able to find one.

In the UK 600,000 people die each year. Some of these deaths could be delayed or avoided, but in the end large numbers of people will die every year because people have reached the end of their lives. Its not tragic – its the only thing we know for certain that will happen to all of us.

It seems unlikely that we will be more grown up and have a proper conversation about death – particularly if the behaviour of the mass media and social media continues as now.
I fear we will collectively become even more obsessed with safety after the corona virus, at the expense of fully living our lives.

Being safe is not living – it is a vital foundation for living but the living takes place elsewhere and always involves risk.

sharon johnson
sharon johnson
4 years ago

My grandmother was tough and fabulous. She worked, kept a large hillside garden, painted, and told us she would never die ‘on a porch’. Her words for ‘nursing home’. She’d seen friends and relatives go that way and it was not her style. She’d take control of her life and death and told us that in no uncertain terms. When she was no longer able to catch a cab to take her to downtown San Francisco, or hang out at her favorite pub, she took the pills she said she would. No drama. Her determination to control her life to the last breath infused us with a tremendous sense of respect for her – which we always had anyway – and a toughness in managing our own ends. Wills and Pills. No drama.

ukdaffodil
ukdaffodil
4 years ago

What an incredibly RATIONAL article! No faux sentimentality, just saying what (some of us) have been saying (if we dared) all along…

design
design
4 years ago

Could it be that the loss of believe in life after death has something to do with it?

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
4 years ago

This article rates comfortably in the top 5 pieces of great journalism I have read since the pandemic hit. Measured, clear-sighted, realistic, lucid. A welcome counterpoint to the borderline hysterical, parochial, politically motivated scribblings that infest the press and media generally. When I say “politically motivated”, the author is IMO correct to say that coverage of the pandemic and the government’s response is a continuation of the Brexit wars. If I had to give it a medical name I would plump for “Continuity Remain by Proxy”.

A brilliant article that I shall be be sharing.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
4 years ago

“Except lockdown won’t prevent Coronavirus deaths, Just slow down their rate of occurrence”

Something the Swedes understood. They are trading more deaths now for fewer later. Because their epidemiologists couldn’t see how to exit a lockdown without continuing spikes in cases and deaths followed by demands to reclose.

Some say this effect will be exaggerated by weakened immune systems caused by isolation.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago

I think part of the problem is that most people don’t understand relative risks, and this is not helped by the way media report so-called news. Thousands die from flu every year despite there being a vaccine, yet those deaths are largely invisible.

jfyiii.mail
jfyiii.mail
4 years ago

You are right that people are going to die from the pandemic. That is the nature of a pandemic. However You miss an important purpose of the lockdown. It is managing the overwhelming demands on our Healthcare system and the people providing Healthcare. We are unfairly burdening them to “save us”.

I whole heartedly agree that many people now live too long. Part of society facing death is facing that many people cling to life too long and at too high a cost. After watching my father decline as he reached his late 80’s and mom now in her 90s still sharp mentally but physically unable to clean her bathroom. I’m convinced I do not want to go past 85. But even those who want to check out are prevented from doing so.

Vanya Body
Vanya Body
4 years ago

Well said! I believe that many do share this view but feel they can’t say so. I hate it when I hear, again and again, a death of a very elderly person described as tragic. It’s not. What I believe is tragic is that we are keeping those who probably have only months or, perhaps days left to live, from enjoying these precious moments with their loved ones. The younger people who die from this flu are often having their lives celebrated in the media. Meanwhile, the lives of other young people who die more quietly, of cancer or any other disease are never known beyond their families and friends . Their lives were no less meaningful.

Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
4 years ago

One presumes that the results of the survey below are at least partly motivated by the desire of the persons polled to avoid death, either of themselves or a family member:

“In a poll of more than 28,000 people conducted on April 16 to 19, a majority of respondents in eight out of 14 countries are against opening the economy if the virus is not fully under control.

This sentiment is highest in developed economies of the United Kingdom and Canada (70%), followed by Mexico (65%), Spain and Australia (61%) and the United States (59%).

At the same time, more respondents agree that reopening should take place in some hard-hit countries including Russia (60%), China (58%), Italy (53%), India (51%) and Germany (50%).”

https://www.ipsos.com/en/pe

What I find most interesting about that survey is firstly, that the strongest resistance to the reopening is coming from the English speaking nations. The only exception is Mexico, which is so attached by culture and immigration to the United States, we see an almost identical opinion held there to America.

Likewise, Russia and China share a border, and normally have much cross border interchange (a huge number of Chinese visit Russia normally as tourists), and the figures for reopening there are nearly identical.

And likewise with Germany and Italy, with some parts of Italy being effectively German like the Tyrol, which has Italian/German bilingualism.

What this tell us is that most likely the reaction to the lockdown of the public is coming almost entirely from whatever the government and media propaganda is in the area of the world one is living in.

Thus, to use a topical metaphor, the governments in the UK and in America, have so to speak “dug their own graves” by imposing this lockdown, in an ostensible but possibly misguided effort to avoid digging everybody else’s.

I chose the word “ostensible” carefully, because I think on closer inspection, the actions of both Messrs Johnson and Trump, were more about not digging their own political graves than anything else.

As MH writes above, Mr Johnson tried to follow the herd immunity doctrine at first, but was it seem accused of being some variety of murderer.

The question needs to be asked most gravely by whom.

Because it appears logical to suggest whoever it was that effectively “shouted down” – or perhaps we should use the word “bullied” – Mr Johnson to abandon the non-lockdown policy that he originally seemed to favour, was therefore successfully responsible for causing the lockdown.

So as I don’t spend my whole life studying the media, like presumably a lot of professional journalist do (or at least should, I remain unconvinced, due to some gross ignorance by journalists I have seen displayed during this crisis), I am not wholly clear exactly where the barracking of Mr Johnson started.

But as it also seems logical to think, that the same people who started it, are continuing to do it, in fact even complaining he was too slow in listening to them, and not strict enough in his lockdown implementation, the most likely candidates seem to me the mainly left wing or what I would call “political correctness” obsessed areas of the media, and the politicians of that ilk also, which I’d term the Blairite pro-EU part of the Labour party.

As MH also points out in the above article, this whole saga has become some kind of political mutation of the Brexit crisis, and whether it is intentional or not, I have commented elsewhere and received much support for the view that this feels like it is some kind of collective punishment of the older generation, who are mostly Brexit supporters.

Because while in theory, the official line is this exercise is to protect those who are most at risk from dying of covid-19 or its now infamous “complications”, in practice it is the old who are suffering most from this lockdown, as the propaganda probably rightly tells them that they are the ones far and away at most risk from the virus.

As in the UK, around 600,000 people die annually of all causes, of which at least 500,000 we can safely say are elderly, as this lockdown appears to be lasting in one form or another for at least 6 months (according to the latest leaked plans in the Daily Mail), and may be effected far longer on the elderly, we can safely say that at least 250,000, a full quarter of a million, are going to die during the lockdown.

Mainly old people, isolated from their friends and family, and largely unsupported therefore, who will thus experience the very last months and year of their lives effectively imprisoned, living in fear, confusion, deprivation and degradation, without having committed any crime apart from being old or vulnerable.

Not a word is breathed about this in the media or out of the mouths of government, and the fact such an obvious (imprisoned for the rest of their) “life sentence” is being imposed on this huge number of mainly old people is being completely ignored or overlooked.

This is the sign of a nation, and indeed government, that has lost respect for its older people, for its parents, its mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles, and elderly neighbours even.

And unlikely as it is that it will listen, does not realise that to disrespect the old, is effectively to disrespect oneself.

Because early death aside, nearly all of the currently young are going to become old, and will then discover that lack of respect for themselves, at a time when it will be far too late.

Human dignity is a very frail thing, it is very easy for us to start losing respect for one another.

And as is well known, though the Brexit vote apparently made that situation a lot worse, an alternative view is that it only revealed the already existing contemptuous attitude, that so many of the younger generation already held towards the older, whom they derisively term “the baby boomers” – meaning an allegedly privileged group of older people who ruined their futures by various means, and in particular by voting to leave the EU.

This lockdown has revealed that disrespect further, and though I don’t have a means to do a statistically reliable survey, it is clear a lot of people of the older generation, such as Peter Hitchens, and his likely mostly older generation supporters, are virtually incandescent at the way they feel their freedoms have been trampled on.

And are likely even more so now, following the revelations about Professor Ferguson.

Who appears to have repeatedly defied his own lockdown, and to be politically linked to (so the Daily Mail reports) an adulterous lover (they call it “open marriage”) who is part of a group called “Scientists for the EU.”

And has been tweeting and being a very visible activist (there are pictures of her protesting outside parliament beside an unflattering effigy of Boris Johnson) against both Brexit and Mr Johnson, since at least November 2016, i.e. shortly after the June 2016 referendum.

One wonders if she exerted undue influence over Professor Ferguson to exaggerate the risks of covid-19, in order to persuade Mr Johnson to unwillingly implement a lockdown, which may well cause such chaos, it will sooner or later finish his premiership and prevent Brexit.

Of course, all the old people, living in near terror of covid-19, afraid to leave their homes or see their friends or relatives even were they allowed, would be mere irrelevant pawns in such a plan.

All “socialists” of this kind (whom I would describe as “Blairites”) of course live by the Orwellian principle from Animal Farm, which when applied to humans says:

All humans are equal, but some humans are more equal than others.

You know, the sort who can flout lockdowns, they themselves recommended or imposed – whom we will recall included not only Professor Ferguson and his lover, but also the Scottish chief medical officer.

The most worrying thing for me about this whole crisis, is that it has become clear that we now have numerous influential people – perhaps even the vast majority – in the media, government and science (and one presumes in academia generally, by proxy) who think that lies are a wholly justifiable tool in attaining their political ends.

Because it appears there could not be a more relevant saying in this scenario than “the truth will set you free.”

As according to much contrary and ignored scientific opinion, such as expressed by Nobel Prize winning biologist Professor Michael Levitt of Stanford University amongst many others, who gave an interview here recently (a Freddie Sayers one), it is the suppression of the truth, above all of a scientific kind, that is currently causing our mass imprisonment.

edjjcarver
edjjcarver
4 years ago

An excellent piece, emotionally uncomfortable, but something I feel that needed to be said. Having had grandparents lost to dementia I feel this is something society has hidden from having an honest conversation about the quality of life vs sanctity of life in such horrific conditions. That mainstream awkwardness to death is now coming to the fore in certain views over lockdown.

olivps
olivps
4 years ago

It seems that we only now discovered that “we all are supposed to die”. Trying to escape when you don’t have any other sort of therapy that yours (and all others) immune system seems odd and terribly unscientific.

Roland Powell
Roland Powell
4 years ago

A worthwhile and uplifting read, thank you. Your critique of tabloid “tragedy” made me smile. ðƾ˜‡

Theo Hopkins
Theo Hopkins
4 years ago

Yesterday I was six meters up a wobbly ladder.
At my age, 78, I should know better.
But I wish to choose the (possible) manner of my own death, and not be ‘protected’ by some callow, wet-behind the-ears, whippersnapper politician of sixty-five who has hardly started living. (insert ‘irony’ emoji here).

Ian Whitehouse
Ian Whitehouse
4 years ago

Despite being relatively young (2 years inside the ‘vulnerable’ 70 years) I long ago sorted my ‘Living Will’ and my family are well aware of my wishes regarding medical interventions when I become old and infirm. It probably helps that my wife and eldest son are both clinicians and therefore more accustomed to considering end of life scenarios.

More of us should look to our inevitable future, accept that it will involve dying and make sensible plans to die in comfort and without unnecessary fuss.

Herd immunity is essential – when / if a Covid 19 vaccine becomes available it will still require a major take up to deliver the necessary herd immunity. I am concerned, but not shocked, that a significant number of people assert that they will not return to work, allow their children back to school or travel on public transport even if the government and scientific advisors assess it is sufficiently safe to do so. This reflects an ignorance of science, medicine and risk that is, unfortunately all too prevalent. The success of the government’s ‘lockdown’ message may be a part of this irrational fear. 30,000 lives lost – but ‘only’ 11,000 excess deaths represent a very small proportion of the country’s population of 66 million.

Jerry W
Jerry W
4 years ago

It did occur to me that with its propensity to attack in particular the old, the obese, and those with allergies or similar health issues, the virus is the equivalent of a spring clean for the human genome… not nice for those involved, I agree
On the subject of dying, read the Wolf Hall trilogy if you haven’t already .. making 50 was a real achievement, in those days

Mark Flint
Mark Flint
4 years ago

15 minutes well spent in reading your essay… and likely 115 minutes and more reflecting on your words. I too share so much of your essay, sadly my wife of 41 years does not and I’m content with our differences. Thank you for writing so well my badly constructed thoughts.

Pauline Kirby
Pauline Kirby
4 years ago

I’m quite happy with the concept of ‘letting people go’ when the time is right but if you have a gung ho ‘let nature take its course’ attitude you must be prepared to be the person who loses their life. I freely admit I don’t want to die and don’t think It’s my right to volunteer other people to do so. This virus appears to be indiscriminate in who it chooses to kill – remember that when you’re in the herd.

Peter Scammell
Peter Scammell
4 years ago

This is an excellent article. Discussions of this nature are increasingly becoming part of our national debate and rightly so.

Edward Andrews
Edward Andrews
4 years ago

As a minister who has conducted several thousand deaths, I’m not impressed by this article.
Of course Death comes to us all, and is often to be welcomed. the attitude of mind that we have some right to live for ever is simply wrong. Fine you pick that up, and had you left your essay at that it would have been fine.
It is when you then try and put it in the context of Government policy that t goes way off line
and in the context of the policy of the Government about CV19 it is a rather foolish article and is seeking to justify actions which will lead to deaths which are a tragedy. It is not just old people that the Virus kills, but the young and active as well.
At well over 70, I have no concern about my own death and if it comes from the Virus that is it. However, I do not want to be part of an infection transmission which leads to the death of some one whose death would cause problems for their dependents. Also while I’m firmly of the DNR school for my self, I would not want to use up resources which my indiscipline cause to be used on me.

colin hay
colin hay
4 years ago

Incisive, balanced and bold. This is a fantastic piece, and ‘air’s’ a great moral debate, indeed the ‘elephant in the room’. As a society we would do well to heed the message, and be mature enough to reflect on our moral perspective, values and compass.

donald.curtis1
donald.curtis1
4 years ago

‘Important to have that conversation’
.. they said
So here goes
“Šone sided though it is.
.
‘MD’ in Private Eye*, promoted this thought
A ‘Thought for the Day’ presenter said it again**
“If COVID-19 strikes, and you are aged,
with ‘underlying condition’, [as I]
shouldn’t you stay home
“Š be ready to die?”
.
“Š or words to that effect.
Reasonable. [Though probably posted by a younger soul]
.
So, three thoughts”Š.
One.
Would I care to burden the NHS?
“Š. compete for a ventilator with a younger bod? No.
But needs be. With care to spare. I’d take my chances.
Tentative farewells. Into the tunnel of face masks “Š
.
Two.
Would sustaining my presence on this Earth
“Š add one jot to its betterment? No: have passed my sell-by date
have done, whatever I have done, for good or ill
“Š if mostly well intentioned.
No.
.
Three.
Am I ready?
So, the light goes out.
The clock stops. Me not there to wind it. But another will.
Apple blossom opens, petal by petal. Me not there to see it
“Š it blossoms as before, and will again, for another’s wonder.
Yes: these pass on.
O.K.
.
But.
If I am spared (as they say)
That is good too.
Chance to see what the world will concoct out of crisis.
It had better be good.
.
*Medical commentator in the satirical magazine
**The ‘God Slot’ on BBC Radio 4

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
4 years ago

Maybe mention Sweden? It has taken a much more relaxed approach and deaths per million are same as in Ireland which took a much more drastic approach. Also people who need medical care suffering from cancer, coronary problems and other problems are being side lined. I live in Canada where there is a lockdown and fear is the reason.

Bob Henson
Bob Henson
4 years ago

A very good article, thank you Unherd. I remember my father’s death, he was a devout Christian and sincerely believed in an after life, so death was just an event in his life. He was suffering from advanced cancer and the previous evening he had lost control of his bowels, he
saw no point in further prolonging his life and asked for a priest to conduct his last rites; this duly done he simply passed away in peace, God rest his soul.

Neil John
Neil John
4 years ago

AS my father always said “one day some buggers going to slap you in the face with a shovel, or stick you in a bloody great gas oven”, he went in the oven. Having grown up in a family of butchers on my mothers side, and former professional killer father, he specialised in killing German officers by sniping, I’d always realised death is inevitable. Since training and dealing with many incidents first as a recovery driver, then as an EMT that’s been reinforced, now approaching retirement I know all I can do is live for the day and enjoy life as far as possible. As the land-rover owners put it “One Life-Live It!”, and remember from the moment of conception death is unavoidable. As far as CCP Covid-19 goes, the ‘old mans friend’ is a relatively dignified and painless passing and preferable to heavy duty intervention, prolonged suffering and a horrific death for many, I can only hope families can support elder members choices and DNR’s if they choose to have one.

roslynross3
roslynross3
4 years ago

This is an excellent article. The irony of course is that vaccines also pose risk and uncertainty it is just that the placebo effect is even greater for a needle than a pill and people have put their faith in science as the new religion, despite the risk realities and failures of vaccines which can be known by those who choose to know.

Nothing is certain, certainly not any medical treatment. Certainty is an illusion, albeit a comfortable one but an illusion all the same.

We need, as the writer touches upon, to return to accepting death as a natural and healthy part of life particularly where the aged are concerned.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
4 years ago

Thankyou for this very timely and relevant article.
It has been said that that the Victorians were obsessed with death and never talked about sex,and we are obsessed with sex and never talk about death. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there are two sure things in life – death and taxes. Yet contemporary society does everything it can to avoid thinking about this great reality. There is of course a deep seated instinct for self preservation, but as sapient human beings we can also give death the respect it deserves and contemplate its significance.
It maybe that one of the reasons why we are so keen to avoid talk of death and gloss over it quickly is because we have lost any meaningful hope of life after death. This is another consequence of the prevailing secular philosophy which pervades much of our national life. This is tantamount to shooting our selves in the foot because in the midst of our multi religious society there stands the Church which stands or falls by the historical event of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

I don’t conflate a healthy attitude to death and the old-fashioned practice of keeping the body of a dead family member in the house for a few days. In the end, what made them the person we loved has gone at that point; the body is merely a lump of flesh to be disposed of. I agree with you, however, that we must try to become less risk averse as a society. In so many ways, we would benefit from a healthier attitude to risk, and this must be fostered from a young age. We must also, I believe, try to curtail our obsession with healthcare. We have elevated the NHS to an entity which must be worshipped, and fly on the wall documentaries about A and E departments, babies being born etc abound. Sure, some of this stuff is interesting, but the trend seems to betray a need to sanctify birth and preserving life; birth is pure and death is dirty and disgusting. In the end, birth and death have always happened, and always will, and will always cancel each other out. We should get on with living, rather than concerning ourselves with its start and end points.

There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born

Bob Dylan- The Ballad of Hollis Brown

David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

Interesting no one is commenting on:- https://lockdownsceptics.or

Rich Smith
Rich Smith
4 years ago

some GPs will prescribe antidepressants barely days after a loss, as
though normal grief at the death of a loved one is a medical condition

Depression, whether from grief or not, is a medical condition. I don’t see why doctors shouldn’t prescribe it if it helps.

This argument sounds ridiculous if you apply it to other areas, e.g.:

Some doctors will provide pain relief during childbirth, as though normal pain at childbirth is a medical condition.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
4 years ago

An excellent article. Perhaps it would help if we reverted to using the word “dead” to describe the, yes, death, on someone instead of “passed” or “passed on”.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
4 years ago

Superb article. May I just add that the increased refusal to accept that we all must die and that death is a part of life, has developed in inverse proportion to the loss of religious education and faith.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
4 years ago

Another thoughtful essay to help us get a perspective on what’s happening and the challenge we face. But like others, it doesn’t mention the reason why I personally support the lockdown strategy, at least for the moment. Until more tools are available, I believe that we are ethically obliged to limit the strain on the hospitals. That includes the stress and agony on doctors, nurses, patients, and patients’ families that is caused by overcrowding, lack of supplies and equipment, and understaffing. These dreadful conditions were seen, to varying degrees, in Italy, Spain, and New York City. Reading the testimonies of those on those on the ground is a humbling experience. As important (or not) it is to avoid unnecessary death, it is even more important to avoid the grief and agony of the situation of overwhelmed hospitals.

David Lewis
David Lewis
4 years ago

I agreed with much of this. Semantics often give insight into group-thinking and I have noted that nobody has ‘died’ from Covid-19, they have all ‘sadly-passed’ – a new phrase that’s grammatically ambiguous.

However, with a new disease like this there are advantages to buying time for thinking and research. A vaccine may well come along in due course, there is a significant glimmer of hope regarding convalescent serum treatment, and we may find an anti-viral agent that works against coronavirus.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago

Time to return to describing some deaths as a “happy release”

Mike Carr
Mike Carr
4 years ago

Thanks for this article, it brings a realistic sense of perspective in its theme

marksviljoen
marksviljoen
4 years ago

I LOVE the title of this essay for the chord of truth it resonates within me. I mean say, for example a Fauci, a Gates, a Birx and a Cuomo for example, were fighting a life and death struggle with our little Corona virus………I for one would be rooting for the poor virus!

Go Away Please
Go Away Please
4 years ago

Good article. I’ve gone a bit further than “not every death is a tragedy” and stated to people that “dying is not always the worst thing that can happen to to someone”. A few have listened without glaring at me in sheer horror and understood my meaning.

Orla Halpenny
Orla Halpenny
4 years ago

I am afraid I cannot agree. There is no evidence that herd immunity will be achieved with this virus and, even if we knew that there was such evidence, herd immunity can only result after a substantial number of people, young and old, health care workers (of which I am one), mothers and fathers of young families, have died.

The prime objective of lockdown is not to save lives, but rather to reduce the speed of spread of the virus so that the health services are not overwhelmed. This was not mentioned in the essay.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
4 years ago
Reply to  Orla Halpenny

Absolutely, the purpose of the lockdown was/is to slow the rate so as not to overwhelm medical systems. However, there are two “elephant in the room” problematic discussions that we now face. The first question is, ARE we still in danger of overwhelming our medical systems? All I hear from authorities is that we are on lockdown so that we slow the rate of viral transmissions–I am not seeing metrics that back up the assertion that we are going to overwhelm our systems unless we keep to “X” number of new cases per day, as contrasted with data that show that a given loosening of restrictions will lead to “Y” amount of cases and that “Y” amount of cases is certain to overwhelm our medical systems. I’m not saying that the metrics and reasoning don’t exist; I’m saying that they are not being made a precise and transparent part of every briefing regarding every decision being made by authorities. The second elephant to be discussed is related to this article: have authorities shifted the goalposts away from medical system capacity and onto an attempt to suppress the virus as though we can simply wait it out and it will go away? It’s clear to me that many (most?) people are accepting the continued lockdown because they think that infections will be avoided forever, instead of merely postponed. These people have simply not accepted that there is now and will continue to be a risk of death from a virus that we probably can’t eliminate anytime within the next 2 years—if ever.

David Brewin
David Brewin
4 years ago

Thank you for your essay Mary…excellentM!to what extent do you think there is a local cultural aspect to the position. We seem to have developed a dynamic here where politicians are ” forced ” to talk down to the population, as to have a adult conversation around a complex and difficult issue is considered beyond the U.K. population. The mainstream media seems to be complicit in this, witness the response when Dr Jenny Harries, pleaded for an adult conversation.
In contrast Sweden appears to be treating its citizens as adults and trusting them to act sensibly. While is It premature to predict the outcome, as each day passes it looks like Sweden may we’ll have got it right

N
N
4 years ago

I couldn’t agree more.

phil westwell
phil westwell
4 years ago

Thank you.

politicofigure
politicofigure
4 years ago

Mixed feeling on this. I don’t envy anyone making these decisions. My grandad suffered from TB as a kid and spent 3 years in hospital recovering and I do find it staggering how casually he brushed this off. He considered being this ill and close to death not too out of the ordinary. Not sure, what that really says today or if we should aspire to it. A relevantly healthy life has become a more concrete guarantee. Often, taking away these guarantee causes much more uproar and noise than getting them in first place. I suspect the government will get quite the hammering if they ease too early and there’s a second wave and quite the hammering if they keep the economy closed too long and there’s a second wave anyway. Sometimes the inevitable is just that.

Terryy Mulholland
Terryy Mulholland
4 years ago

Thought provoking and enjoyable, she writes so well. I notice that Mary refers to her grandmother and her mum, has mother fallen out of use completely?

Graham Dougherty
Graham Dougherty
4 years ago

Well written piece, very interesting.

Howard Medwell
Howard Medwell
4 years ago

Of course the writer is correct to point out the inadequacy of our current attitude to death, and the likelihood that this virus, and/or other, comparable viruses, will be with us for years to come.
However, in Britain, as always, the lockdown, seen as a political issue, illustrates a left/right division.
Those who are calling for the lockdown to be scrapped are those who would prefer not to examine the failings, not just of Johnson and Co., but of the whole political tradition of the last 40 years, and the relationship between the human suffering caused by the lockdown, that which will be caused by over-hasty loosening of the lockdown, and Britain’s well-established patterns of inequality.

Anne W
Anne W
4 years ago

Thank you for this piece. So relieved there are other sane people out there. It feels as if the world has gone utterly mad right now.

David Charles
David Charles
4 years ago

A refreshingly honest and balanced statement Mary.
For some death is a no go area of conversation often until one has had a close experience of personal loss. Some remain detached or unaffected by any loss; for others such loss is tuned into their personal beliefs, whatever they maybe. For me this pandemic highlighted the lack of effective preparedness. Maybe the distant observer in all of us watching the events in Wuhan also overtook the minds of the politicians but true preparedness isn’t just about having stockpiles of anything but maybe being as self-reliant as possible. The dependence of the World upon cheap Far Eastern manufacturing has played its part in the pandemic, aided by political decision making of the consumer nations. While many narratives of finger pointing resound, the real lasting outcome of this episode is our preparedness for tomorrow. It is common thinking among the relevant parts of the science community that risk of pandemics are increasing. Our connected lives with improving travel methods assists rapid spread. The world still doesn’t have cures for SARS, Ebola or HIV but time and effort brought about treatment or supportive methods – and during those worrying times there was no lockdown. Any mutation of the current virus effectively interrupts the vaccine efforts. Outbreaks and pandemics of whatever frequency are part our lives, as is death with it’s closure.

codedeane
codedeane
4 years ago

Thank you for this piece, as I feel you’ve captured thoughts that I haven’t quite articulated with others. The story of your grandmother moved me. What we’re facing now is challenging, but I sometimes feel that this lockdown is like dying a slow death.

krista4h
krista4h
4 years ago

“It’s no coincidence that less wealthy nations have in many cases weighed the risk of pandemic against the certainty of starvation.”

This is the whole issue that is rarely discussed. Shut down is causing a global economic collapse that is already causing starvation in many poor countries in Asia and Africa and is bound to lead to millions of deaths in the future if we continue this madness for too much longer.
The UN World Food Programme has already predicted 250 million will face starvation by the end of the year.
Is it really morally justified to concentrate all our efforts to save a few thousand people in their 80’s and 90’s without any consideration for the consequences? This may sound harsh on the oldies and I am one of them but it is the harsh reality that the whole world is facing not just old people.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

This is a good article. The argument for herd immunity is well-made. My only criticism is that it doesn’t really provide any support for one contention particularly crucial to the argument, namely that the lockdown won’t eventually succeed in eliminating the virus.

Alex Hobson
Alex Hobson
4 years ago

It’s a really important point that points up something very worrying in our society’s attitudes.
And on a lighter note, made me think of the marvellous exchange in Educating Rita – “Man killed by falling tree is not a tragedy.” “It is for the poor sod under the tree!”

Alan Hughes
Alan Hughes
4 years ago

Thank you, this was an excellent article. This topic needs widely discussed if we are going to learn how to live, and die, with covid-19

diabolique_ph
diabolique_ph
4 years ago

A philosophical piece. Another viewpoint by which to grasp your head around this pandemic and the issues around it. Interesting.

diabolique_ph
diabolique_ph
4 years ago

A philosophical piece. Another viewpoint by which to grasp your head around this pandemic and the issues around it. Interesting.
**
Last paragraph from that article:

“No rules can be devised that will banish death altogether. And no amount of prophylactic regulation will stop the coronavirus in its tracks, only slow it and try to ensure medical facilities are not overwhelmed. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever have a vaccine or cure. Until that changes, if we are to begin living again, we may need to re-learn some forgotten lessons about how to walk in the valley of the shadow of death.”

johntshea2
johntshea2
4 years ago

We object to the herd immunity policy because we don’t want to kill millions of people. When huge and densely-populated city-states have kept theit Coronavirus death-rates below ONE per million, we have both a right and a duty to object to any policy which multiples that death rate by HUNDREDS.