The political purgatory of the COVID dead

Those who’ve died of COVID can be neither properly remembered nor fully forgotten

Published October 10, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Holding hands in hospital bed (Getty Images/kieferpix)
Holding hands in hospital bed (Getty Images/kieferpix)

"It's not a joke. I don't know what more or how much more I could express… Please do not put your families at risk… Put your masks on. Don't go out if you don't have to."

These were the words that a 43-year old mother of three shared on a video clip she posted to Facebook shortly before her death from COVID-19 in August of 2020. Messages like hers are not hard to find; Google-searching for phrases like "coronavirus last words video" will uncover plenty of them, often packaged in the form of quick, somber segments from local news channels. One such story from October of 2021 recounted a vaccinated woman's last words before being hooked up to a ventilator and then passing away. She had placed a phone call to a local TV news channel from her hospital bed to tell them that "I just want people to know that even though I took all the [precautions]… we still cannot be too careful. It might not have helped me, but I hope it helps somebody else." These last words are still floating around the internet, months and years now after their authors have passed away. What does it mean that such warnings typically go unheeded?  

The shock of such COVID deaths seems to have waned in the time since both of these women lost their lives. At least 1,050,000 other Americans just like them have died of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. Indeed, Americans continue dying from it despite the prevailing mood among our nation's public health experts-turned-pundits and, now, the President himself, that the country has moved on. President Biden went on 60 Minutes two weeks ago and declared that "the pandemic is over." The next day, over 55,000 Americans contracted COVID-19 and 421 died from it. What advice would they have for us? Would we care to listen?

The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his germinal text "The Denial of Death" in 1973. He argued that fear of death was a universal facet of human experience, but that such fear "must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort." One fundamental problem of modern life, then, was that we found unhealthy ways to repress such fears of our own mortality, and that the denial of death often took the form of a kind of false heroism associated with the "viciously destructive heroics of Hitler's Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods." Academics across a variety of fields have since tested, affirmed, and sometimes rebutted Becker's claims that the denial of death in Western societies can lead to maladaptive behaviors.

Telling them that they died because the health of the economy required it would have been very little consolation.

But how can we situate the massive shrug evinced by proponents of today's "COVID is over" sentiments within this framework? Are they denying the deaths of hundreds per day, thousands every week? Or are they embracing death, acknowledging a new comfort level with mass mortality? And what considerations do the dead themselves deserve as we move away from older ways of perceiving the pandemic?

Certainly the enormity of the loss from this virus has made a full reckoning difficult, at least within established memorial vernaculars. It takes around three hours to read the names of the 2,983 American victims of the September 11th attacks on that anniversary. Those names have also been engraved in black marble around the footprints of the World Trade Center buildings, in a style mimicking Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, itself containing 53,518 names of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. But with over a million names and counting, adequate COVID memorialization has been difficult to even envision, much less accomplish.

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In print, the New York Times' famous "Portraits of Grief" series brought the biographies of September 11th victims to life, a task the paper began to mimic in the early days of the coronavirus with a recurring section called "Those We've Lost to the Coronavirus." But this too has been harder to maintain as COVID's list of victims has grown. On May 24, 2020, the Times declared 100,000 deaths an "incalculable loss" and listed 1,000 of the names of those victims on its front page with a small biographical detail devoted to each. By the time America's death toll reached a million, the Times told the story of "How America Lost One Million People" with demographic characteristics taking the leading role: age, race and class were the defining characteristics of an otherwise undifferentiated mass. One other Times story entitled "One Million Deaths, 13 Last Messages" shared the last text messages of 13 different COVID victims as part of a timeline of total COVID deaths. One victim whose final message was quoted in the story was a 64-year-old man who appeared to be getting better and had been moved to a rehabilitation center. In an optimistic mood, he texted "Yes I'd like to stick around a while." He died six days later.

Beyond simple pleas to get vaccinated or mask up, what do these final messages tell us? What can we learn from the COVID dead? An obvious but nonetheless fundamental point, exemplified by the message above, is that they would have preferred not to have died. And, no doubt, telling them that they died because the health of the economy required it would have been very little consolation. Nor would the vast majority of COVID dead care whether the kind of increased COVID protections that might have saved their lives polled well or not for whatever political party was in power at the time they passed away.

Of course, the dead are always political: victims of the 9/11 attacks; the drowned and abandoned during Hurricane Katrina; children killed in school shootings; soldiers and civilians dying in foreign wars. Political factions will always argue over the meanings of the dead and how to properly respond to whatever global or local ills they supposedly represent. But even as their words fade from collective memory, the bodies of the COVID dead are now being propped up to pantomime support for the return to our most brutal forms of neo-liberalism. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID coordinator, recently spoke excitedly about an impending "commercialization" of treatment, tests, and vaccines — meaning no more free vaccines after this last bivalent booster, and who knows what will happen to the market for other COVID-related products. We've already seen the end of the free test program run through the post office, which was only ever begrudgingly put into place after a gaffe from then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki. And funding for the development of next-generation pan-coronavirus vaccines that might actually put an end to the pandemic is also drying up. In being asked to return to normal, to get over COVID, we are being asked to return to the worst, most blindly individualistic elements of American society, and to forget about the glimmers of solidarity and common decency that we saw in the pandemic's earliest days.

So our COVID dead occupy a kind of purgatory. They can be neither properly remembered nor fully forgotten. 

Rebecca Solnit's book "A Paradise Built in Hell" describes the forms of community and solidarity that emerge in places that are struck by disasters. As she put it, "In each disaster there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound." We got a sense of these newborn social bonds in the earliest days of the pandemic. People masked up to "flatten the curve" for themselves and the employees of our beleaguered health care systems. They cheered for doctors and nurses and praised the essential workers keeping the country running in grocery stores and factories alike. And, almost unbelievably now, a bipartisan group of legislators passed a series of economic relief and stimulus measures that ultimately decreased the number of Americans in poverty by 8 million and reduced the amount of children in poverty by 30 percent. Of course, corporations too benefitted from a massive infusion of cash into the stock market, and large and medium-sized businesses benefitted from $800 billion of PPP loans, over 10 million of which were fully or partially forgiven. But there was at least a sense of shared sacrifice, a tiny, fleeting idea that we were in this together. A better world was possible, and for a minute we all saw it. In being asked to get over COVID, we are being asked to forget those possibilities as well.

 "If you are even 70% sure that you want the vaccine, go get it. Don't wait. Go get it because hopefully if you get it, then you won't end up in the hospital like me, OK?" A 31 year-old, unvaccinated woman posted these words to her TikTok account on August 15, 2021, nine days before dying of COVID. Not only do the pandemic dead not want to have died — they want us to take care of ourselves, to be safe, safer than they were.

But such well-meaning advice won't matter much to the uninsured in this country once vaccines are no longer free, or to those whose uptake would depend on a robust government outreach effort which no longer exists, or to the many who will contract COVID and even die from it despite being vaccinated. As our country gives up on masking, and on improving indoor ventilation, and instead adopts an absurd "you do you" approach to the virus that will, in fact, allow it to continue to mutate into new, more immune-evasive forms, we are being pushed to ignore the million who have already died, and the untold numbers who surely will continue to be infected, sickened, disabled, and killed thanks to government inaction and public fatigue.

So our COVID dead occupy a kind of purgatory. They can be neither properly remembered nor fully forgotten. But their words and stories are, collectively, a testament to failure, to a national shame which was not their fault, but for which they nonetheless serve as stubborn, inconvenient, haunting evidence. And there it seems they will remain, at least until we can change the course we are currently on. Unless we can care more fully for ourselves and others, and do what really needs to be done to end the pandemic regardless of its economic costs or personal inconveniences, they will have died in vain.

By Timothy Recuber

Timothy Recuber is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College and the author of the forthcoming book "Death and the Digital Self" (NYU Press, Fall 2023). His previous book was "Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster." His work focuses on the mass media's representation of death and disaster, and his research has been published in journals such as New Media & Society, the American Behavioral Scientist, Research Ethics, and Contexts. Find him on Twitter @timr100.

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