Covid has warped our collective attitude to death

Covid or no Covid, we’re all going to snuff it

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

So, having been promised that normal life would recommence on 21 June, we are once again frustrated by the Covid scientists. The trouble is, of course, that as far as we know the virus is never going away, so according to the logic of the scientists, there is no reason ever to allow us to return to our old way of life. And although it looks as if we are thereby being sensible and ‘following the science’, what it actually reveals is that we are fools to follow a few boffins in white coats, rather than following the received wisdom of the human race over the past 4,000 years: namely that death is an inevitability and even if we do not die of Covid-19, we are going todie of something else. Following the science means living in a fantasy world where death can be everlastingly postponed, or perhaps avoided altogether.

The strange era of Covid and lockdown seems to have brought to an end the pattern of life in which going to the theatre or the pub or having a holiday is regarded as normal rather than a piece of recklessness. By allowing ourselves to be bossed about by scientists, it feels as if the culture of the past has irrevocably come to an end. From the time of Homer’s Iliad, that long, painful, heroic meditation on death, until the second world war and beyond, humanity has stared at the reality of death, either with the hope of an afterlife or with the dogged conviction that there is no such thing. In either event, whether pagan or Christian, religious or non-believing, our forebears believed there was no greater duty confronting a serious person than to recognise the reality of death, and to prepare for a good one.

Everyone my age (I am 70) and older used to learn these lines from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome as children:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
 And how can man die better
 Than facing fearful odds,
 For the ashes of his fathers,
 And the temples of his Gods

Horatius’s rhetorical question is now firmly answered by Public Health England. A man dies better by living an extremely long time, way beyond the point where he is suffering from dementia and costing his fellow taxpayers huge sums of money. The best thing would be not to die at all but to totter on like one of Jonathan Swift’s struldbruggs, drooling, idiotic, incontinent, but still alive and able to pay the care home fees.

Influenza and pneumonia used to be called the old person’s friend. Not any more. Death must be limitlessly postponed, however degraded and miserable the patient. Whatever happened to the Britain that lived through the second world war, when, as the ak-ak guns thundered at the German bombers from Hyde Park, they were observed by diners at the Dorchester, calmly forking in the grub?

Saint Francis of Assisi kissed the leper. It is easy to imagine the response if he tried to kiss a Covid patient today. He would probably be arrested. The Twitter trolls would be out in force, lumping Francis together with those they most hate — dog-walkers, joggers, members of a different class. The ignobleness of the responses to the virus surely provides us with a clue to the damage it is doing, not to our physical health but to our collective culture.

Two things have been going on during this crisis. There is the practical problem of how a society protects itself in a public health calamity. On this, opinion is divided between those who think total lockdown was essential and those who feel there has been a crazy over-reaction. But secondly, there is the question of what the crisis has taught us about our collective attitude to death.

The practical thing first. Roughly 600,000 people die every year in Britain. Recently the number of deaths has been lower than average. (Why not say so, when, each evening, the newscaster lugubriously and boringly lists the Covid statistics?) As far as the authorities are concerned, the potential catastrophe was not that these people would have died as that thousands of deaths might all happen in the space of a few weeks rather than being spread over 12 months, with an intolerable burden being placed on hospitals, morgues and cemeteries. Hence the lockdown.

What about the bigger question, though: what has the whole miserable 18-month nonsense taught us about our collective attitude to death?

Many of us have beguiled our enforced idleness by turning to the poets. Whether you wish to soar on George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ or stare bleakly at the dawn that pricked Philip Larkin’s Hull bedroom curtains with its miserable flicker of light as he contemplated the inevitable, the poets all seemed sure of one thing: that we are going to snuff it, sooner or later — a fact of nature that the government’s scientific advisers have taken upon themselves to circumvent, allowing the ‘vulnerable’ to die of whatever they were dying of anyway — cancer, old age — rather than be a Covid statistic.

Non-believers often used to sound more heroic than Christians. Why, they could ask, do you need the fiction of a future life to console you for the inevitable? Religion, Larkin scornfully felt, as he watched the dawn return to Hull, was ‘a vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die’. Although in that poem (‘Aubade’), he said ‘Courage is no good’, it surely is. Courage is the foundation of all other virtues. The inability to face death is essentially ignoble, and the present culture, which encourages us to suppose that we can postpone it indefinitely, is a non-culture. A nothing. As a result of being made to skulk indoors for months, we might have avoided catching an unpleasant disease which (for the huge proportion of its sufferers) makes you feel ill for about a week.

Instead, as well as watching the economy collapse and being bored out of our skulls, we have been irreparably demeaned. ‘The whole of our life,’ wrote Chateaubriand in his memoirs, ‘is spent wandering around our grave; our various illnesses are so many puffs of wind which bring us a little or a great deal nearer port’. The failure by those who govern us to recognise the simplicity of this truth has led to the present crisis: our homes a prison, our economy a ruin, our lives at a standstill — all to ‘save’ the lives of people who will die anyway of other causes, before very long.

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