Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
View profile and Diary

13 Apr 2020 : Faces of Death in the Pandemic

On Easter Sunday, I thought about death.

The beginning of the day was nothing special. I woke up, arranged my room, watched my favourite morning TV show, went to the supermarket to get milk and cereal, and cleaned the washing machine. I lived my ‘life', and there was no place for ‘death’.

After I had finished my to-do list, there was nothing left to do, so for no particular reason, I thought about death - death in the pandemic.

News that I watched on TV may have caused these thoughts. Several days ago I saw an old man crying because he could not attend the funeral of his loved one. Initially he decided to attend the funeral even if he had to break the lockdown rules. But, he reconsidered this decision and did not attend at the end. This grieved him so much that he wept like a child.  His story is one of many stories of heart-breaking deaths in this pandemic, but his tears are indelibly etched on my mind.

I fear the pandemic because it has involved mass deaths. This pandemic starkly reveals the boundary between life and death. Many efforts to save lives end in tears. The tragedy and human suffering during this time is compounded by the conditions of the pandemic, which makes basic human dignities, such as a proper funeral, difficult or impossible.

The trauma of those who have lost loved ones has carved a deep scar in the society. Some people apply a war metaphor to the pandemic because of its similarities in terms of the suffering and the loss of life, despite  obvious differences between the two and the negative effects in using the war metaphor to describe the current situations.

On 10th April,  the number of deaths from COVID-19 reached over 100,000 globally, and the death toll in the UK was expected to reach 10,000 on Sunday (April 12). People are becoming desensitised to the number of deaths, as we are growing accustomed to the situation. The highest record of the death toll in the last 24 hours is fainted and replaced by a new record that comes up the next day.

Now, we can look at the pandemic as a tunnel. We are stuck in the middle of the tunnel, and counting the number of deaths from the virus to know when we could escape from this tunnel. Perhaps, we have been too busy looking for the exit that we do not give much thought to how death is like in this pandemic.

However, I have been feeling empathy for the deceased people lately, and wondered what happens to the people who died of the virus. Death in the pandemic, unsurprisingly, looks far from basic human dignity regardless if the infected people died in rich or poor countries. 

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, the local health system is broken in this crisis, and they are having difficulties in handling the high number of dead bodies in their hospitals. Helpless people put the dead people on the streets. The Guayaquil local government mobilised the army to collect 150 bodies deserted on the streets, and distributed coffins made of paper to the public. In Bergamo, Italy, COVID-19 bodies had to be moved by military trucks to other regions to be cremated. In the US, bodies are put in orange body bags and lined in the hallways or outside of a hospital, or loaded (sometimes, by a forklift) into refrigerated trucks which serve as temporary morgues.

In Korea, the bodies are sealed in a two-layered plastic bag with no make-up and no shroud. Usually, South Korea follows a law where the bodies are cremated after 24 hours. But, in this situation, the South Korean government highly recommended to cremate the body as soon as possible, even within 24 hours, with the consent of the family. However, the deceased people can be cremated only after the other normal occurring deaths are cremated. Only one member of the family can attend the cremation, wearing full protective gear, but, in many cases, cremations take place without the attendance of family because their families are in self-isolation. They can have a funeral, but usually many people are not invited.

What made me very sad was that in many cases, the deceased people could not have a proper and loving moment with their families. According to the South Korean CDC’s guideline for death from COVID-19, when an infected person faces the last moment of his/her life, their family can come to see them. But, the family should wear personal protective equipment, and any contact with the infected person is not allowed. Even worse, it has been heard that some people were not able to see their family member’s last moment because the hospital was concerned about the risk of infection. One daughter could see her deceased mother’s face in the plastic bag only from the window, that too, only for 3 seconds. While reading the guideline, I thought about the last moments of the deceased people when they were in a hospital, a plastic bag and a cremation site, and became very emotional. I never expected that I could get emotional by reading government guidelines.

I think that my sadness may last throughout my whole life, if I could not have the last hug, last kiss and last moment of saying ‘goodbye’ to my mum, holding her hand and hugging her body when she is about to pass away. When I thought of this image, I could not help phoning my parents to see if they were fine.

I believe none of the people in the plastic bags, refrigerated trucks, and the hallway of a hospital might have expected their lives to end like this. They deserve to have a proper death, surrounded by their families and friends. However, deaths cannot be normal in a pandemic situation, and our efforts to respect them are often discouraged and thwarted. Therefore, death in the pandemic is miserable.

I hope the detailed images and stories of the deaths in this pandemic will not be forgotten or erased for political reasons. I hope the things that those deceased people had to go through in their last moments are recorded and remembered.

© 2020, All rights reserved. Views expressed are those of individual contributors. Privacy Policy