The Western world has been caught in a spiral of self-harm and debasement for the past three years. Aspects of the underlying psychology have been discussed in abstract terms, regarding mass anxiety and the actions of crowds. Little has been said on the possibility that we are simply terrified of death. This is a fear we may need to address, if we are to stop acting like fools.
Death was once part of life. A visit to an old cemetery will reveal that many earlier gravestones are memorials to young children and women of child-bearing age. This is because, obviously, a large proportion of children died before they turned five, and about one in ten (or more) women died in childbirth. Death happened, and people also travelled, had parties, went to concerts, and lived fulfilled lives.
In modern wealthy countries, better hygienic conditions, better food, antibiotics and surgery have largely removed the barriers to a long life. Elsewhere, people still face these threats. However, the average person in Africa or South Asia is not cowering under his or her bed, obsessing about the latest virus, terrified of going outdoors or of meeting neighbours. That is a modern, affluent population obsession. Recent lockdowns in African and Asian countries were mostly responding to external pressure from very wealthy individuals and institutions, or local grabs for increased authoritarian control, rather than genuine fear of a new and deadly threat.
Many in the West now reach adulthood without ever seeing someone die, or even seeing a dead body. Most have never experienced a friend dying, many have not even been to a funeral. Very few have sat with someone as they passed from life. Death is rarely talked about, and coping with a kin’s death is often left to the individual and the support of professional ‘experts’. Public mourning is unfamiliar, and can be an embarrassment. If we believe the lie that humans are merely organic constructs, then death may also be a terrifying blankness of nothing.
Enter COVID-19. At its height in the United States, despite financial incentives to boost reporting and definitions including a positive PCR test a month prior, Covid was associated with less annual mortality than cardiovascular disease or cancer. Our society responded by putting it front and centre of our lives, wrecking economies and livelihoods. We even used children as human shields, injecting them with novel pharmaceuticals in vain hope of protecting ourselves.
We can indulge in inquiries on the origins of COVID-19, and on the pros and cons of aspects of the response. We can call for Nuremberg II tribunals. We can debate the actual causes of increasing excess death. These are important discussions, but they are missing the point. We need an inquiry, particularly self-inquiry, on why we, or those around us, were open to being led by obviously self-interested people into deeply irrational actions.