Does the UK care about the virus?

At the time of writing (4/2/2021) the UK has seen 109,000 deaths from COVID-19. In terms of death rate per million inhabitants, this is the third worst death toll in the world – significantly worse even than the US. And yet we as a nation, seem to be accepting this dismal performance as somehow normal.

When the US passed 100,000 deaths, this was the reaction from the New York Times:

It highlights both the scale of the death toll and the fact that these are individual lives, not just a statistic.

Our newspapers, in contrast, marked the passing of 100,000 deaths, not by emphasising the scale of the catastrophe or with searching investigations of how we could have reached such a position, but with pictures of the Prime Minister and coverage of how sorry he felt for the victims. The image they presented was of a caring and hard-working statesman weighed down with almost unbearable responsibility in the face of an intractable problem. It was almost as though Johnson were the victim rather than the person with ultimate responsibility for the catastrophe.

Even worse, some people in positions of power and influence have sought to downplay the virus, comparing it to the ‘flu, denying the risk of a second wave and downplaying the number of deaths with the argument that “they would have died anyway.”

In fact, the average number of years life lost by each COVID victim is over 10. So we can think of 100,000 people losing 10 years of their life as approximately equivalent to over 10,000 babies being slaughtered at birth. Not something that a civilised society would take lightly. And note that ‘underlying conditions’ includes not only life-threatening issues like heart disease but a wide range of other conditions like learning difficulties, asthma, having had your spleen removed and even pregnancy – if you had died from COVID having suffered from any one of those, you would not be counted as one of the 339 victims.

Not many in the media have been quite as explicit as the journalist Jeremy Warner, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph,

“Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”

But it seems as though many share that view.

Judging by the polls, the population as a whole seems to have followed our media and accepted the government’s argument that it has done all it could under very difficult circumstances, despite the strength of feeling from the medical profession to the contrary and the undeniable (but not widely known) evidence from 149 countries whose governments, facing equally difficult circumstances, have done far better than ours.

We previously wrote about how high the stakes remain – if the government does not change strategy, tens of thousands more lives will be needlessly lost.

But if there is no outcry, no general awareness of the need for change, the government seems happy to continue with its current approach – trying to seek some illusory ‘balance’ between the needs of the people and needs of the economy. And if that happens, we could still see 2021 bringing more deaths from COVID than 2020. And that also means more economic damage: more jobs lost, more businesses going bankrupt, more families made homeless, etc.

So we face a challenge: how can we bring to life the scale of what has happened, and how high the stakes remain in terms of what could happen this year? We need something tangible both to provide proper recognition of the victims so far and to highlight the ongoing nature of the threat.

One answer is to construct a living memorial for the dead: physical recognition of those who have died so far and of the ongoing nature of the crisis. The pictures above and below are two versions of the same idea: a monument whose detail commemorates each life lost and whose overall shape mirrors the passage of the virus. Such a monument would create a powerful physical symbol which both commemorates each life lost with dignity (unlike the Tweet above) and shows the seriousness of the pandemic as a whole.

A Unique Physical Symbol

Many memorials consist of a wall listing the names of the victims. Usually, the shape of the wall is pre-defined and the names are fitted onto it.

This idea is different: each victim has a small plaque and the height of the wall on each day is adjusted to accommodate the number of victims. The wall itself is arranged in a spiral, starting on the day of the first death and continuing for as long as the pandemic continues. This means that it is, unfortunately, a living monument – construction only stops when the virus has been eliminated. The very fact of continuing construction sends a signal about our progress in containing the virus.

Ideally, visitors will enter the monument through a tunnel and emerge into a circular central courtyard. They will then follow the course of the virus, day by day, as they walk outward through the spiral. If they are relatives or friends of the victim, they will know where to find their loved ones.

As they walk through the monument, visitors will see how, initially, the number of deaths seems negligible but as the wall rises for the first peak, and dwarfs them, the scale of the pandemic will become more tangible to them. Then they see the effects of the first lockdown begin to bite and height of the wall subsides, and again for many months remains very low. But after schools return, and a natural delay for the dynamics of the virus to play out, the death rate and height of the wall begin to rise. Sooner or later, the second peak will also be contained, and the wall will again dwindle to low levels and – we can hope – end without a third peak.

Depending on the size of each person’s plaque and the number of columns of plaques each day, the shape of the monument would look different: in the version at the top of this post, each plaque is 20 cm wide and 6 cm high and there are five columns each day. This means that for every day of the pandemic, 1 m of wall needs to be built, and height of the wall would rise to over 12 m at the peaks.

In the version below, there are 10 columns per day, so each day requires 2 m of wall to be built, and the wall is only around 6 m high at the peaks.

In both versions, the monument will be imposing and visible from a distance. It could even become a place of pilgrimage.


Commemorating the Past and Preventing Future Victims

Many of the families of victims feel that they are being ignored and the deaths of their loved ones downplayed; they have called for the building of monuments. While no monument can reduce the injury that has been done to them, it can avoid adding insult to it.

But it may have another, even greater importance: if the scale of the monument, and the degree of its visibility translates into a widespread understanding of the scale of the COVID tragedy, pressure to change policy will grow. No government will want to see a third peak being added to the monument.

As we wrote recently, the difference between the government getting it right from now on and getting it wrong amounts to tens of thousands of lives saved, or needlessly lost.

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