By Jane Galvão*
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense loss of life, leading individuals and organizations to create initiatives addressing this reality affecting communities around the globe offering outlets for remembering the life of those who died and declaring, as underscored by the COVID Memorial: “Not forgotten. Not just a number.”
We have instances of paying tribute to people who died, as for example in wars, having, in some cases, a day to remember or the creation of a memorial, or the “Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebrate in November in Mexico and in other countries remembering family members and friends who have died. But a day to evoke those who died of a specific disease or initiatives created to honor them are not common.
With COVID-19 we are seeing initiatives to remember people who died by the disease surfacing in different parts of the world. Perhaps was the sudden appearance of the virus, the exponential growth of the infection and the number of deaths. Or perhaps was the travel restrictions, lockdowns and quarantine that put an additional layer of constrain on not being able to visit family members and friends affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Or perhaps was the need to silence the noise generated by disinformation and misinformation, and the lack of adequate response to the pandemic, and in some cases some people would say almost criminal response by elected officials. Probably all these elements are being factoring in by the creators of these memories of grief and sadness highlight here.
I was moved to write this article when I encountered a virtual book, created in the United Kingdom, with the names and photos of people who have “died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK”. I had read about the website — a person I know lost his brother to COVID-19, and his name is on the website — and I started looking at the faces and names posted there; although I did not personally know anyone who appeared there, the number of deaths has grown so large that increasingly no one can be entirely removed from those touched directly by the pandemic.
Dying during a pandemic
The World Health Organization’s first report on the novel coronavirus indicated 282 confirmed cases in four countries (China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand), and six deaths. As of 18 July 2021, the number of confirmed cases was 190,169.833, in more than 200 countries and territories, and 4,086.000 people had died, and unfortunately, since then, more people have lost their lives.
One of the most distressful aspects of having a loved one who is dying of COVID-19 has been the inability of family and friends to be with them in their final hours. Likewise, attendance at funeral ceremonies have been constrained by restrictions while having services to be performed via digital platforms. Yet, with creativity and an immense dose of human kindness, healthcare workers are trying to alleviate the loneliness and coldness faced by people needing to stay in hospitals surrounded by strangers veiled head-to-toe with personal protective equipment by virtually connecting those who are sick and near death with their family members.
Saying goodbye to loved ones by way of electronic devices is one of the most devastating aspects of the pandemic. This inspired use of technology, out of desperation and love, is happening everywhere. Powered by healthcare workers, at the bedside, and family members before screens and digital cameras, messages of love are carried across the physical distance imposed by the pandemic.
Saying their names, memorializing their lives
At the peak of the HIV crisis in the 1980’s, a bold action was taken to honor those who had died but also to show the global impact and devastation of the HIV epidemic and to call for action: the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The NAMES project was one of the first community-based initiative created to display the names of individuals who died of a specific disease. With COVID-19 we are experiencing something similar, and a series of initiatives are taking place. Below, I highlight some of these initiatives, especially newspapers and channel news, websites, and art installations.
Newspapers and cable television
For months local newspapers and cable channels displayed regular segments with vignettes of the people who have lost their lives to COVID-19. See the American news channel, CNN, where the anchors gave vignettes of the lives of Americans who died of COVID-19; and the Brazilian channel, TV Globo, had a continuous scrolling backdrop on its night news (Jornal Nacional) depicting hundreds of portraits of Brazilians who died of COVID-19.
As the United States approached 100,000 deaths, the New York Times posted on the front page of its Sunday edition (May 24, 2020) “a long, solemn list of people whose lives were lost to the coronavirus pandemic.” They also had a section, “Those we’ve lost” from March 2020 to June 2021. Also, family members and friends who lost loved ones to COVID-19 are giving testimony, including digital platforms.
Websites and art installations
A virtual book (Remember me) was created in the United Kingdom with the names and photos of people who have died of COVID-19.
Another website, The COVID Memorial, is described as “a place to share remembrances of loved ones lost to the coronavirus pandemic, and to encourage public health measures that can prevent more deaths in the future.”
In Washington, D.C., the artist Suzanne Firstenberg created an outdoor art installation — In America, how could this happen — planting a white flag honoring loved ones lost to COVID-19.
In Brazil, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, in August 2020, a NGO (Rio da Paz) installed 100 crosses next to simulated graves in the sand of Copacabana Beach to call attention to the 100,000 Brazilians killed by then due to COVID-19. Again, in April 2021, Rio da Paz used 400 body bags to remember the 400,00 Brazilians deaths due to COVID-19.
The global mourning caused by COVID-19 will continue into 2021; by June 10, 2021, more people have died of COVID-19 than during all of 2020. Meeting the current challenges will require determination reinforced by solidarity and compassion.
At the beginning of 2021, a decline in new infections was reported but then, a few weeks later, increases in new cases were seen “in four of WHO’s six regions”, with caseloads later exploding in nations such as India and across the Americas. Also, political turbulence in some countries (see for example Myanmar and Tunisia) is aggravating the control of the virus.
People across the globe are impatient to return to a life without Covid-19 as soon as possible. But, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reminded early in the pandemic, in March 2020: “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline”.
Vaccines, several arriving in the final months of 2020, are invaluable for turning the tide; by 19 July, 3,434,304.520 doses of vaccines were administered globally. But as highlighted by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks, in May 2021, at the 74th World Health Assembly: The ongoing vaccine crisis is a scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic. More than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries.
Addressing vaccine inequity is more important than ever. Dr Tedros did not name the countries, but an article published in January 2021 mentions that the top 10 countries in terms of total doses of vaccines administered were, at that time: Britain, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, Italy, Russia, Spain, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. And to complicate this scenario, more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have been identified in a growing list of countries. To illustrate this situation, a report published by UNAIDS in July 2021, shows that it is very low the administration of the vaccine among people living with HIV. And a new website launched in July 2021 is tracking access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The consequences of vaccine inequity could be disastrous. A study supported by the International Chamber of Commerce warns that “the global economy stands to lose as much as US$9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing economy access to COVID-19 vaccines”. Another initiative recently launched — Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity —reinforces this prediction as stated in their website COVID-19 vaccine inequity will have a lasting and profound impact on socio-economic recovery in low-and mower middle income countries without urgent action to boost supply, share vaccine and ensure they’re accessible to everyone now.
But even with the growing numbers of confirmed cases and deaths it often seems that it is difficult for public health officials to fully express the human suffering caused by diseases. In this sense, the global and long-lasting impact and disruptions caused by COVID-19 should motivate the public health establishment and other stakeholders involved in responding to the pandemic to find ways to truly listen, learn, recognize, and collaborate with the efforts created to remember the ones who have died of COVID-19.
In an interview on the American news channel CNN in mid-November 2020, Dr Jonathan Reiner, Professor of Medicine, at Georgetown University, offered, that reading all the names of the 250,000 Americans who had by then died of COVID-19 would take at least 10 days. We might imagine, most appropriately, these names being read by the politicians, TV and radio personalities who, through their actions, social-media posts, and broadcasts served to deny or minimize the seriousness of the pandemic, using ignorance as a badge of honor, and deflecting attention from those who have died or suffered serious illness from COVID-19.
Richard Parker, writing about the AIDS response in Brazil in the 1980s and early 1990s, spoke of suffering and solidarity. Witnessing the interactions between families and healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can say that we are going through a parallel moment. However, the number of confirmed cases and the growing number of deaths, can also have the effect of turning the public numb. Cultivating solidarity and compassion among those not yet affected by the pandemic can both foster compliance with public health measures and help create a supportive environment for those who have already felt its devastating effects.
May the heart-felt tributes and memorials to those whose lives were lost help us find the needed collaboration, determination, solidarity, engagement, and hope to navigate the challenges ahead posed by COVID-19.
*Jane Galvão has a PhD in Public Health. She is currently Global Health Advisor at UNHR.