As at time of writing, the global death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 10,000. Many countries around the world are in some form of lockdown. Patterns of work and life are changing, maybe forever. As death tolls rise from country to country, people who have never lived in close proximity to death before are being forced to stare death in the face. Those who have always known death’s name have felt its cold visage draw closer. For some of us who live between those two worlds, known terrors have come calling once more. As the numbers rise, we know that there are names behind each figure, entire lives that exist no more, we know once again the pain of the left behind, as we deal in death once more.
During my master’s degree at Lancaster University, a couple of us Nigerians would meet regularly. One of the observations that was often made during these meetings, was how we had begun to treat travelling long distances as nothing of much weight. We did not approach a journey between Lancaster and London with much trepidation, and paid it as much attention as we would going to the corner store to buy bread. This was of note for most of us had lived in Nigeria, where each road trip was first contemplated at length – was it necessary? If yes, was it necessary now? And who do we tell about the journey? And more importantly, who do we not tell? How much prayer do we partake in before said journey? These were questions that we asked frequently. Not surprising in a country which reported 37,562 road accident fatalities in 2017. Nearly 4 times the global number of deaths currently officially attributed to COVID-19. Death as constant reality. And not just from accidents in travel, but also from medical mistakes, medical infrastructural lack, stray bullets, building collapses, errant explosions… the daily danger of being born into a vampiric nation-state, where there is no reliable record of the dead… never, except in the earth that swallows them.
In the shadow of COVID-19, I am thinking of death once more, what it means and what I have learned about it thus far. In an earlier essay, ‘Death and the King’s University’, I explored four lessons that death had taught me. I still stand by those lessons. But writing and reflecting in the time of corona, with a constant shadow of daily death updates, with people being asked to restrict their behaviour to suppress the numbers of departing souls… has made me re-reflect on how humanity deals with death. Apart from people who have told us that someone they knew died from COVID-19, and the tragic loss of the great Manu Dibango, all we have for now are numbers of the dead. No names. No faces. And unlike the morbid voyeuristic Band Aid Ebola video [shior!], we have not been confronted with bodies. For which I am grateful. I have seen too many dead bodies left behind by departing souls. I have known too many people whose sojourn on this troubled earth ended before my own. And I know that one of the things that many of us are struggling with now, in trying to carry on, is how to make sense of death.
But to make sense of death, we must make sense of life. This life. Because this pandemic, this crisis is not just about the numbers daily delivered to us. It is also about what we do not see. The structures and the processes. It is also about the left behind. Those lives that will continue no matter how near or far they were from the departed. The doctors, and nurses and health care professionals who will lose more patients than they have ever lost before, after putting in more work than they have ever put in before. The offices and institutions that will reopen with remembrances. The families that will live on with spoken and unspoken gaps between them. And a world which could have done much better at this, if we only listened across the chasms we have created between each other, if we only cared for something, someone other than ourselves.
There are many lessons that we are told this pandemic teaches us, how it exacerbates the weaknesses and wickednesses of our systems, how our fault lines have deepened and our privileges become more obvious and overt. And I am sure the choir is being preached to and those who did not listen before may go on not listening. But we must keep on preaching, keep on teaching, keep on unlearning. That our dreams for the world are currently too small, our visions currently too limited, our structures unwise, unsustainable and unsafe. We must let our dreams and visions do more than continually reproduce an uneven world. A world where the lots of those who must die so that others may live, have always been unfairly cast. We must learn that humanity has always been dealing in death. We must learn that when dealing in death, we are dealing in more than names and numbers. We are also dealing in spaces left behind, in a world irrevocably changed when a spirit departs her surface. We must think on how often we are asked to consider that departure, that consequence, that space, that chasm, as completely acceptable, unavoidable and even necessary. How we are constantly being asked to refuse all responsibility for the space left and for the left behind. How often we are asked to think only of numbers and names and bodies.
We stand now in a world that will never be the same. As the ancestors increase in number, we must bear witness. As things change, we must change. And if we are called to be part of the left behind, we must decide now, standing in this valley of tears and sorrow, who we will be, and what world we will build for the time when we will no longer be the left behind. We must also remember that history teaches us that ‘once we are through this’, it will be too late to start implementing the changes that ‘this’ is telling us that we need. We are dealing in death. We have always been dealing in death. Now, we must start dealing in life. Now, we must begin to re-imagine what life, what living, what being, what world is possible. And then we must build it. Now. In this valley.