February 24. We have become accustomed to the ritual announcement of Covid data.
The Government is producing daily figures on the progress of the pandemic. It falls to the newsreaders on the main television channels to deliver these at the head of the bulletin. There are scores for infections, hospital admissions, deaths within 28 days of a Covid diagnosis, and recently, vaccinations.
When it gets to the deaths, always the same feeling is inserted. ‘Sadly’ XXX deaths were reported in the last twenty-four hours. The point of this extra descriptor is presumably to indicate that the broadcasters comprehend the tragedy that is unfolding day by day. They are not just reading from a teleprompter, but somehow engaging with their own emotions. When they can remember, politicians will also furrow their brows and put the word in front of the deaths they are discussing.
‘Sadly’, when repeated night after night, is an oddly featureless term. I might use it to describe the recent demise of several roses in the arctic winds that blew through my garden last week or the failure of an online order to arrive. I would not think it adequate to encompass the pain I might feel if I were being connected to a ventilator or if a close relative had died.
There is, after all, a thesaurus of terms commentators could use: ‘tragic’, ‘devastating’, ‘infuriating’, ‘unnecessary’. Instead repetition turns ‘sadly’ into a cliché, expressing little more than indifference. This week it means, ‘who cares as long as the figures are coming down.’
Finding a public language to describe the constellation of grief that Covid-19 causes is far from easy. Attention has lately been drawn to an American study which recalculates the bereavement multiplier, the number of individuals left suffering after a death.* The research increases what has been the conventional ratio of five (see my post ‘Computing the Sorrow’, January 22) to just under nine. In the UK context, the current death toll of 121,000 would generate a little over a million bereaved people; globally the figure would be twenty-two million.**
As is often the case, however, sophisticated mathematical tools are being applied to very coarse data. The American study focuses on the nuclear family network of grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child, and asks, given the age-specific Covid mortality and US demographic patterns, how many people would be affected by a death. It is essentially a connections survey. No attention is paid to wider networks of relatives, friends and neighbours, nor are there any questions about the nature of the loss, which presumably can range from shattering grief to passing regret. In the end it is just another version of ‘sadly’, a generalised description of an event which in the States has now accounted for 500,000 lives, or, by this multiplier, 4.5 million bereavements.
More useful research is beginning to appear on the quality of the experience.
Deborah Carr and colleagues (good to see the old stars still working) identify two kinds of death: “Good deaths …are distinguished by physical comfort, emotional and spiritual well-being, preparation on the part of patient and family, being surrounded by loved ones in a peaceful environment, being treated with respect and dignity, and receiving treatments concordant with one’s wishes.”
Whereas: “bad deaths … are distinguished by physical discomfort, difficulty breathing, social isolation, psychological distress, and care that may be discordant with the patient’s preferences.” For the bereaved they are characterised by “the erosion of coping resources like social support, contemporaneous stressors including social isolation, financial precarity, uncertainty about the future, lack of routine, and the loss of face-to-face mourning rituals that provide a sense of community and uplift.”**
Yesterday evening’s newsreaders should have said: “in the last twenty-four hours there have been 548 bad deaths.”
**Ashton M. Verdery, Emily Smith-Greenaway, Rachel Margolis, Jonathan Daw, ‘Tracking the reach of COVID-19 kin loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 117, 30 (July 28, 2020):17695-17701. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2007476117.
** Deborah Carr, Kathrin Boerner, Sara Moorman, ‘Bereavement in the Time of Coronavirus: Unprecedented Challenges Demand Novel Interventions’, Journal of Aging & Social Policy, 32, 4-5 (2020): 425-431. https://doi.org/10.1080/08959420.2020.1764320