Imagine if we had to hold a moment of silence for every person that died of COVID-19 in Malta. If we were to assign each person the traditional 60 seconds as a mark of respect, Malta would fall silent for nearly seven hours.
Four hundred people have succumbed to COVID-19. On November 17, 2020, Repubblika placed 100 chairs in Castille Square, underneath the office of the prime minister, who had debunked the pandemic and said, blithely, that the “waves are in the sea”. The numbers have now risen to 400. That means 400 empty places round the kitchen table, 400 empty places in the living room, in workplaces, in the church pews.
It’s been a year of waiting for daily numbers. For some, numbers are just a blip on their radar. A quick check on the Saħħa page, maybe a grumble, or a sigh, according to the numbers announced on that particular day, and then life goes on.
Others, shamelessly, behave like Madame Defarge at the guillotine. Counting the number of fatalities.
But numbers do not measure life. Not one, let alone the lives of 400. Three hundred and ninety-nine families. How do you measure the grief and loss of 400 families?
Four hundred persons who are repeatedly described by the health authorities as having died of COVID-19 because they had “underlying conditions” or that they died while “positive for COVID-19”. Worse, they were ‘elderly’, using the rhetoric of dehumanisation that lumps them together in a faceless mask of anonymity.
This ethical car crash of treating the elderly so dismissively is rooted in what we perceive as their economic worth. They no longer contribute to the economy, so they are ‘worthless’. It’s been a long year and, thus, we have become desensitised, immune, forgetting that we live with these people, that they raised us, that we love them, that they’re family.
Numbers do not speak about people.
They don’t speak about the retired teacher who, after teaching generations of children for 42 years, still tirelessly contributed to the community as a councillor in his town. They don’t speak about the cheerful woman who loved to dress elegantly and was partial to red lipstick. They don’t speak about the family doctor who went above and beyond the call of duty with his patients and their families.
They don’t speak about the man who loved building Christmas cribs, presepji, or the energetic man I knew, who, whatever the weather, loved to have a daily swim and who, after years looking after his parents, was dedicating some much-deserved time to his own pursuits and liked nothing more than ħobż biż-żejt in Għar Lapsi.
The numbers don’t speak about four priests who gave their lives serving the people in parishes in Malta and abroad, at the Dar tal-Provvidenza, who guided entire families, baptised their children, married them, celebrated funerals, wiped their tears.
The numbers do not speak about the grief and the sorrow of the families of each of the 400 victims. These numbers do not speak about the distress of those families who know that their father, mother, son, daughter, grandfather, grandmother is lying desperately ill in bed without the comfort of their loved ones. Frightened and alone. With no one to hold their hand.
This country is not allowed to mourn the dead- Alessandra Dee Crespo
These numbers do not speak about the frontliners, whatever their job may be, who have been in the trenches for a year, separated from their families and when they do go home they cannot hug their wife, husband, children, parents.
The numbers do not speak about the members of our families in residential homes who have been shuttered behind perspex for an entire year, bewildered at the notion of having been ‘abandoned’ by their own families. Some have also died since. The numbers do not speak about the decline in mental health of so many trying to make ends meet. Of children struggling to keep up with their schooling.
This country is not allowed to mourn the dead. The authorities seem to be oblivious to the fact that 400 people have died of the virus. How can you ignore 400 deaths? Why? Because their deaths are an indictment of incompetence and negligence?
Funerals of COVID-19 victims have to be arranged quickly. In haste. With no time to catch one’s breath. Some are scared to pay their respects, so they follow online. Sometimes their loved ones are in quarantine themselves. The funeral rite, a ritual designed to give comfort, to bring mourners together, keeps us apart. Because this virus is cruel.
This country is not allowed to mourn its dead. Only civil society, a youth wing of the PN and a few religious entities have remembered them with symbolic events. In the early days, the authorities announced the dead in a press conference. It felt like a ritual. It felt like the government cared. Now the dead are announced with an asterisk at the bottom of the daily graphic. A full life reduced to a footnote. When did this country become so callous?
Instead, we speak of recoveries, of falling numbers, when the fallen are all but forgotten by this country. Because when we speak of an economic recovery without taking stock of the toll this virus has wreaked on the community, then we are unashamedly disrespecting the grief and the loss of 400 families. But the mantra of ‘business as usual’ and ‘normality’ have numbed some to the suffering of others.
But we must not forget. Many were avoidable deaths had the authorities not fudged the message and the measures. But this country must not fudge the remembrance. When this is over, and it will, we must come together as a nation to remember our dead. The authorities must learn their lessons or else these deaths would have been in vain.
In our haste to get back to life as we know it, we must not forget those who can’t.
We owe it to them. We owe it to their loved ones.
Alessandra Dee Crespo, president-elect, Repubblika
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