Opinion: Where is the grief over COVID-19 victims? | Opinion | DW | 19.07.2020
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Opinion

Opinion: Where is the grief over COVID-19 victims?

The world is watching the death toll from the pandemic climb, yet trying nonetheless to return to normality. But that won't work without a culture of collective mourning, says DW's Astrid Prange.

Spain has shown how it is done. On Thursday, the country stood still to hold a state ceremony of mourning for the some 29,000 people who have died there of COVID-19, often without a last goodbye from their families and friends.

The ceremony was attended not only by the Spanish royal family and top-ranking politicians, but also by WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

But, alas, Spain is a praiseworthy exception. Despite the fact that more and more people across the world are mourning for relatives and friends who have died of COVID-19, those at the top are still often pretending that the pandemic does not exist, especially in countries where the death toll is racing upward.

Watch video 01:57

Spain pauses to remember lives lost to the coronavirus

Read more: Coronavirus: When saying a final goodbye is banned

'New normality'?

Even though mass graves are still being dug for coronavirus victims in Brazil and the US, shopping centers and gyms are reopening. In Berlin, revelers have held "rubber dinghy parties" in front of a hospital. In the UK, holidaymakers have "forgotten" to stick to physical distancing rules on overcrowded beaches.

But why does it seem impossible for the world to simply pause for a moment? Why is there so little compassion being shown just when those who are mourning need support and human closeness the most? Why has no country except Spain called a national day of remembrance or mourning despite the more than 500,000 people who have died in the pandemic worldwide?

The answer is that this "new normality" draws a veil over the fear of what collective mourning could bring about. Grief can generate considerable power. It binds people together and demands mutual respect. It triggers rage and protest and calls into question the social balance of power.

Watch video 06:11

Brazil – Denial on a pandemic scale

Read more: Demonstrators get creative during coronavirus pandemic

A quiet force

What would happen if the grief of millions of people in the US or Brazil were to come to the surface? If people were to spend hours at the cemetery instead of on social media? If, for an hour, compassion and empathy were to be more important than all the scandals, all the supposedly important political debates and all the other catastrophes?

It is not unlikely that such a collective pause to reflect would end up revealing many of those in political high office to be mere phrasemongers who are incapable of sensible action. After all, slogans like "America first" or "Brazil first" are not going to comfort grieving relatives, nor will they solve the real political and social problems at hand.

Read more: Coronavirus pandemic exposes global inequalities, says UN chief

When the pandemic recedes, what will count won't only be the number of COVID-19 victims, but also the number of those who have recovered. What will count won't just be the numerous mistakes made in fighting the pandemic, but also the capability shown to correct those errors as they occurred. What will count will be who has upheld the dignity of the dead and learned the lessons they teach.

The relatives and friends of COVID-19 victims deserve to receive more respect and understanding for their grief. They mustn't be left alone with this pain. Collective remembrance ceremonies and symbolic gestures are the only way, if there is one at all, to cope in the long run with the loss of hundreds of thousands of people.

The images of mass graves and dying patients in hospital corridors have etched themselves on the world's collective memory. Death, as our constant companion, has become more visible. Without collective mourning, the trauma caused by the coronavirus cannot be overcome.