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Why We Cannot Memorialise the COVID-19 Dead

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If we are to recognise and acknowledge that lakhs died, then it also becomes necessary to ask difficult questions.
Family members perform last rites of a COVID-19 victim at a cremation ground in Guwahati, Friday, June 4, 2021. Photo: PTI

If mourning – as a nation – can only happen when we acknowledge, value and humanise each of the thousands of known deaths (and the many more thousands of unknown ones) during the second COVID-19 surge of April-May 2021, we also need to consider the factors that prevent us from acknowledging what has happened.

If we are to recognise and acknowledge that lakhs died, then it also becomes necessary to ask difficult questions. How did this happen? Why couldn’t medical facilities couldn’t cope? Why or how did the system fail? To ask these questions is to apportion blame and, consequently, to take responsibility, which is not something we are comfortable with. While we are all excellent at pointing fingers, accepting blame and taking responsibility for our own culpability is not something we believe in. Why is it that we do not believe in saying, “The buck stops here”?

The fear of consequences

We are outraged by the thought that we will lose face, that our stature will be impaired, within our borders but also internationally. Our fairly newly-minted international stature is something that we would prefer not to jeopardise and hence we try to put a more acceptable spin on things, and clamp down on stories that make us appear in a bad light. Nationally as well, we try to manage the numbers and the narrative rather than manage the conditions on the ground that might help us save lives. This is also connected to the fear that the truth in all its immensity and horror might lead to consequences at the upcoming polls, and who would risk that?

The fear of appearing weak, by acknowledging culpability, is also linked to the fact that other political parties might make much hay of this admission (if it should ever be made). Instead of giving a fractured opposition any additional ammunition which it may use against the government, we would rather present a set of alternative facts. The impossibility of determining specific numbers, the possibility of cracking down on those who present inconvenient truths, and the determination to retain control of the narrative is impelled by the fear of consequences, from we, the people of India, and from the world at large.

Scapegoating the Other

When faced with a crisis of gargantuan proportions, we quickly look around to see who we can blame, hoping that a convenient scapegoat will emerge, maybe one we have anyway already consigned to the desert. This tactic was seen deployed at its best when the Tablighi Jamaat was blamed in the initial days of the pandemic: demonising the Muslim is part of our national culture now and even those who do not usually embrace communal conspiracy theories did look with some scepticism and disapproval at the Tablighi Jamaat in April last year.

Also read | COVID-19 Has Shown Indian Political Leadership’s Lack of Vision: Raghuram Rajan

To deflect blame and behave like non-stick, Teflon coated cookware is in our DNA, and whether excusing violence against individuals, communities or institutions, we have a range of reasons we call into play, from emotional truth (it is enough if a large number of people ‘believe it in their hearts’ and does not require evidence of any kind), to victimhood born out of ‘centuries of oppression’ by invaders (ignoring the fact that several of our flaws were not given to us by the invaders), or the snatching away of our rightful jobs and/or our daughters and sisters by those who should know their place in life. The list is endless and what it comes down to is, “It is never our fault, we were forced into it/it came about because of the behaviour of the unscrupulous Other.”

Short attention spans and memories

When we think about why we don’t build commemorative memorials, except for our soldiers, one of the most significant reasons is because we trust in the short attention spans of our people. National disasters and events, however grievous, fade from public memory quickly enough, especially when there is no monument to keep that memory alive. Think of the Emergency and then think of consequences for Indira Gandhi: despite running a reign of terror during the Emergency years, after three years in the wilderness she was back as prime minister. We do not raise monuments to commemorate our fallen as then they could become the focus of our disaffection, they could enable our memories via their materiality and their iconicity.

It is far simpler to erase the millions who died in the Partition or the thousands who perished in the Bhopal gas tragedy by not performing these commemorative acts for them. By eliminating memorialisation, we partially eliminate also the possibility of blame and the possibility of public opinion coming together cohesively, making for change and the possible pulling down of the oppressive structures which made those memorials necessary. This might also be why it is possible to have memorials for those who died in the tsunami, as that tragedy was due to natural forces: blame could be laid easily and without consequences.

The same can hardly be done for a man-made disaster where a memorial might turn into a locus for the affected and the disaffected to congregate and where cultural memory can be perpetuated. In its absence, the reliance is on the shortness of our memories, the fact that in the melee of the everyday and the busy schedules of most individuals, there is little time or energy to memorialise and in doing so to affix blame and accept responsibility. By eliminating the memorial, we eliminate also all that may follow in terms of cultural memory.

In addition to these, is there another reason why we do not memorialise our COVID-19 dead?

Grievable lives

Can we be certain of the value placed on each of the lives that have been lost? Whose lives matter? How much? Whose deaths are significant? And the answer still stems from Judith Butler’s insights post 9/11, when she wrote, in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), about how an obituary becomes an index of a life that is grievable:

“If there were to be an obituary, there would have had to have been a life, a life worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving, a life that qualifies for recognition. . . . if a life is not grievable, it is not quite a life; it does not qualify as a life and is not worth a note.” (emphasis added)

So then is it that the life of the ordinary person in India is not grievable, does not qualify for recognition (even if it does, during life, have a vote)? Working outward from this insight, there are only a few lives in India that are grievable. This has, of course, been remarked upon when we speak of the deaths of manual scavengers and compensation for those deaths.

Also read: Why Justice Chandrachud’s Line of Questioning on Vaccine Negotiations is Important

In the past few years, more and more of us have become non-grievable lives – the average Muslim, the Dalit, women have all been lives that were always negated. What the pandemic did, and especially in its second wave throughout India, was to increase the pool of those who can be seen as dispensable, those whose life was not “worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving”.

Suddenly it became possible for a former diplomat, an ambassador to Brunei, Mozambique and Algeria to die in a parking lot; for an internationally known journalist to lose her father; for another to lose her uncle in spite of all their efforts to get them treated and well again; and for the dead to be uncounted, given cursory farewells and left in shallow graves. If the life of the ordinary, everyday Indian is seen as dispensable, if their death is not to be acknowledged or grieved, then were these deaths not “real deaths”, as Butler phrased the lives and deaths of the Palestinians in her aforementioned book?

If we cannot accept our culpability for what transpired these past two months in our country, we cannot then mourn the dead Nor can we look to the future and say, we need to change and improve. To not accept our responsibility is to negate the value of those lives and to perpetuate the myth of our greatness, even if the dead are all around us, everywhere, in hospitals and morgues, in ambulances, at cremation grounds, makeshift and established, buried on the banks of rivers, floating down the waters.

The dead ask that they be counted.

Anna Kurian teaches at the department of English in the University of Hyderabad.

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