We don’t do death

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 09.04.2021

All those years ago, when an American journalist tried to quiz Tony Blair on his religious beliefs, Alastair Campbell, his ubiquitous spin doctor, famously stopped the interview in its tracks, barking: ‘We don’t do God.’ Too controversial. Too much of a slippery slope with certain Labour voters on the left. Blair duly followed the advice. So far, so good.

And though the circumstances that we currently face are much more dramatic, you might be tempted to draw an eerie parallel with that Blair episode since the last few months have shown again and again that our government don’t do death. Those press conferences have a way of blurring into one another as they follow the same pattern, no matter who is standing behind the two lecterns. New measures are tentatively announced; questions from journalists are scrapped and then being revived; the AstraZeneca jab is off and then back on the agenda… To some extent, confusion rules.

Yet the one element that almost every decision-maker seems to be running away from is the number of deaths recorded. As if the dead were an irritation, an embarrassment letting the government down. As if they had not only literally turned invisible and untouchable. Silence has become the Luxembourg way of death. It is deeply ironic that the only minister who broke this omertà and started her press conference with an homage to the deceased was Corinne Cahen, the most controversial figure of them all!

There is no need to become sentimental, but the occasional official acknowledgement would be more than appropriate. Otherwise, we risk ending up in an inhumane place where citizens will go on living dangerously atomised lives in their own little corners. This potential development recently hit the headlines in France, where the Conseil scientifique Covid-19 commented in a report dated March 11: ‘La lassitude a gagné nos concitoyens et nos soignants. Une certaine indifférence face aux chiffres des décès s’installe.’ What some idealists had hoped for initially, namely that the Covid crisis would lead to a more empathetic society, is definitely not happening. So it is up to governments to counter the current disregard for the dead and to break that silence.

The one leader who has understood the relevance of this process seems to be Boris Johnson. He misread the situation and failed abominably at the beginning of the crisis, but he has almost miraculously caught up over the last few months, proving once again that he has the potential to be a master at communication. Of course, the fact that right now the UK is in a better place than the rest of Europe does help. Some say their vaccination programme is such a runaway success because Johnson is keen on big projects and loves monumental challenges. Meanwhile, the ponderous European Commission seems to have become bogged down in detail, squabbling about prices and priorities. Too much bureaucracy, too much box-ticking and a complete lack of vision. Obviously, personality and attitude are crucial to what is going on behind the scenes. It turns out that the brains behind Britain’s vaccine procurement was Kate Bingham, a tough and agile venture capitalist who, by the way, is also a biochemist. She turned into the key (unpaid) government adviser overnight, and the rest is history.

But back to Johnson. On March 23 he faced the country on the first anniversary of Britain entering lockdown. He led a minute’s silence and later fronted a Downing Street briefing, promising a ‘fitting and permanent’ memorial to the 126 000 people who have died from coronavirus. The whole period is to be commemorated.

Johnson has realised that collective mourning is not a mere gimmick. It is a solemn and necessary ritual granting everyone the opportunity to reflect and remember. Besides, it will allow society to pay tribute to those who have been on the frontline in hospitals, care homes and, yes, at supermarket tills all year. And that is what may ultimately strengthen national unity. Yet on our shores, for the time being at least, there is a yawning gap of political leadership in terms of bringing everyone together. Where will Luxembourg go next? All we sense by now is that the brutal impact of the pandemic cannot simply be washed away.

Janine Goedert
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