Craig Williamson reflects on the Covid-19 death toll surpassing six million.
On 9 March 2022, the global death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic hit six million. That number might be hard to conceptualise - it’s more than the entire population of Scotland, and roughly 10 times that of Glasgow. No matter how we try to contextualise a number so large, the human mind will always fall well short of grasping how truly ghastly such a massive loss of life really is. For each of those six million dead there are even more grieving relatives, not to mention those who survived Covid-19 but live with its consequences. Survivors of the virus are known to suffer from increased risk of heart failure, strokes, physical fatigue and even permanent brain damage. Reflecting on this gruesome achievement, and slightly paraphrasing David Byrne, the obvious question arises: “How did WE get here?”
There comes a point where society at large grows numb to the spectacle of mass-death, and daily news reports tallying the lives lost turns into just another background mundanity that we pay little attention to. As it turns out, Covid-19 may have been the perfect disease to produce this collective indifference. It’s deadly, but not so deadly that everybody knows someone who succumbed to it. Most people, myself included, are fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one or themselves faced the prospect of dying after catching the disease.
This lucky majority, confined to their homes during the initial lockdown, came to understand the pandemic not through personal tragedy or their own experience, but through news footage of mass graves in Delhi and Rio, self-important tweets that gave you the “real” take on the virus, and depressing arguments with aunties and uncles in the comments section of a Facebook post in which they claimed the virus was invented by Netflix so that we’d all have to stay indoors and argue about whether or not Carole Baskin killed her husband. But it wasn’t "Tiger King" that was the biggest hit of lockdown – it was the virus itself. It had successfully become just another part of our daily lives, yesterday’s news, a dead meme. This is how people become indifferent to something that poses a threat to them.
None of this is to say that I believe the blame lies with the public at large; the failures that led us to this catastrophe are fundamentally political. While a pandemic will always bring out elements of society prone to conspiracies and the grifters who prey on them, it’s the failure of our leaders that caused this particular tragedy to become just another statistic. From Sweden to South Africa, Boris to Bolsonaro, incompetence, corruption and delusion got us here. The Prime Minister thought bodies piling in the streets was an acceptable price to pay in the name of “the economy”, while the President of Brazil denied the virus was anything to be worried about, right up until it nearly killed him. Don’t you love it when a metaphor beats you over the head?
The global scale of political failures that allowed the virus to spiral out of control is symptomatic of a culture that reveres, above all, individualism. Individualism is how private capital can both profit off of a pandemic while pressuring governments to get the grunts back to work regardless of the risk to their health. It's why so many people in our country miraculously morph into wailing toddlers when told to wear a facemask whilst queuing in Waitrose. There was a moment, perhaps, when enough people realised that safety from pandemics required collective responses: properly funded healthcare, living wages and green energy. But in this age of permanent catastrophe, Covid-19 has receded to the background, replaced by the war in Ukraine bringing back the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. If it comes to that, the best we can hope is that Tiger King season 3 proves as good a distraction as the first.
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