‘Discounted Deaths’ and COVID 19: Anthropology of Death and Emotions

Death is a 'social' event rather than the mere cessation of biological functions. As seen by anthropologists, death is not just physical but intensely social, cultural, and political.

Sunita ReddySunita Reddy | Updated: 26-05-2020 16:37 IST | Created: 26-05-2020 16:37 IST
‘Discounted Deaths’ and COVID 19: Anthropology of Death and Emotions
Image Credit: ANI

The myriad ways of dealing with death and dying across cultures have been a fascination for the anthropological scholarship. Causes of death make it ‘good death’ and ‘bad death’. Good death refers to 'dying with dignity', and bad death refers to dying with prolonged illness, unnecessary pain, and suffering, death from prolonged hunger, or many other causes. Das & Han tries to understand the ways in which death features as part of the day-to-day life and even in dire circumstances people strive to ‘to die well’. Anthropologists have been making sense of social relationships, ritual practices, and metaphysical beliefs across cultures around death. This article raises anthropological and psychosocial aspects of deaths during COVID 19. Apart from the official reporting of fatalities, many 'bad deaths' go unreported and unaccountable, that I call, ‘discounted deaths’.

As of 8 am, 26th May 2020, 348,318 deaths have been reported across the world and 4,187 deaths in India due to COVID-19. Many deaths have also been caused as a consequence of lockdown like the 300 deaths of migrant laborers while walking back to their native places in India, and many more who never reached home. They were crushed under the train or truck or died because of heart attacks due to exhaustion after walking hundreds of miles. Around a dozen who dropped dead inhaling the poisonous gas leak as a result of a secondary disaster. All these figures and many more, who might have starved to death do not come under COVID-19 deaths are what I refer to as 'discounted deaths'.

Biomedical COVID 19- ‘modern deaths’

While biomedicine applies the Cartesian model of mind-body dualism that sees the body objectively from a reductionist perspective, anthropologists like Nancy Scheper Huges and Cohen on the other hand see a mindful body from a holistic sense. Across western societies death is an object of taboo; privatized, radicalized, and secularized, with prominence to biomedicine. It relies on brain death, following the clinical rituals of toe tagging, isolating, packing, disposing, and in situations like COVID 19, mass burials. This experience can be completely alienating leaving a vacuum in the lives of a family who lost a dear one. Asian cultures in contrast posit the metaphysical, anthropological, psychosocial, cultural, religious, and legal aspects disclosing the real value and the essence of human life and death. The spiritual connection and the prolonged funerary and purificatory rites in the presence of family and kin members around gives solace to the person and overcome the acute grief. 

Unexpressed Grief and Angst over Discounted Deaths

Loss of loved ones leads to acute grief characterized by yearning, longing, frequent thoughts of the deceased. However, if managed well, it turns into integrated grief where one gets back to normal life by engaging in day-to-day activities. In a few cases, if not managed well, it can lead to complicated grief and mental health conditions. COVID 19 is already flagging many psycho-social issues and mental health issues will be more pronounced in the near future. It is pertinent to understand this aspect of grief, coping strategies, and resilience of the families who lost a member during this pandemic. This will also help to see the gaps and challenges in providing mental health interventions in the community.

Current deaths are bereft of traditions and symbols such as prayers, erecting tombs, or flowing the ashes into the Ganges. The assembling of kin and funerary rites to resurrect and regenerate the dead are more important for those who are left behind. Mourning, too, has become private with no scope to publicly express grief. Death count due to COVID 19 is staggering but grieving is unlike wars. In Britain, during and after World War 1, grieving also became a national experience and there was a rise in spiritualism and spread of ‘truth of spirit communication’.

Vitebsky (2017) work on Sora, a tribe in Orissa talks about the place of the dead in the living people's social world. He thinks that social and religious changes led to the silencing of death, sadness, and anxiety.

COVID 19 being highly infectious and contagious, calls for ‘social distancing’. The bodies of COVID 19 deaths become lethal and are not handed over to the family. Dying in the hands of loved ones gives solace for those left behind. It has been reported that families are unable to go out for cremation and have to see the process over video-telecasting. The family cannot grieve over the dead by physically touching, caressing, and hugging the body before parting. Culturally, the funerary rites and rituals of sending the departed soul help in overcoming the reality of death and coming to terms with the loss. With these untimely 'bad deaths', kin members are left alone to grieve, with no social interactions, fond recollections, reliving memories, and venting out grief. The emotional and existential life of humans is erased with no opportunities to conduct practices of memorialization.

The cadaver tag of COVID 19 with a number, untouched by human hand can be seen as ‘dying while alive. Even more so if the dead are put in mass burials and no remains of the dead are handed to the family. Disaster experiences have shown the importance of handling the dead with dignity, transferring the body to the family, going through the 'funerary rites' which help in coming to terms with the hard fact and bare reality of death.

It is for any body’s imagination to experience death, be it the superstars, an ordinary person, or the migrant worker. Are the emotions of losing a loved one any different for the kin of a superstar or the laborer? Are there graded feelings for the deaths of celebrities and 'discounted deaths' of the labor? While the loss of a successful person leaves behind a fortune for the family, the death of a daily wage earner person, migrant men/women laborers are thrown on streets with no support. It is beyond imagination what will be the plight of the widower or the widow with young children to fend for themselves. Philosophically, those who died are fortunate ones, and those left behind are the doomed and live lives of pain and suffering.

Death is a social and political issue

For the migrants, death is not as dreadful or painful as hunger, leading to starvation and slow death. Paul Farmers concept of suffering and structural violence puts today's context into perspectives; it is the structure of society, which bears the very violence they face every day and becomes adverse in the wake of disasters. It is beyond our imagination to feel and empathize with the lived experiences of those who lost their loved ones. How does it feel to have suffered for no fault of theirs?  'Bad' deaths left with no place for memorialization. In the wake of COVID 19 where the body is not handed over to the family, the funerary rites where the kin, neighborhood, and community is involved to bid farewell and end the mortal attachment are lost forever. The family members can face prolonged and complicated grief due to non-closure of the relationship and may face challenges in moving ahead in life.

Pain, Suffering, and Empathy

Paul Farmers ‘suffering and structural violence’ analyses the everyday pain, suffering, and assault on the dignity of the poor and marginalized. Everyday violence in the lives of marginalized is due to institutional structures of class and social processes which translate into the experience of poverty. The individual experiences are due to structured risk embedded in the social matrix, which gets aggravated profoundly during disasters.

Loads of migrant workers and their lived experiences of everyday violence is a distant reality for those who have not experienced it and thereby the apathy towards them. However, it is not always one who has to suffer to be empathetic. A study shows a drop in empathy levels leading to detachment and apathy regarding the pain of others. It is due to overexposure to the internet, social media, violent images, leading to 'generation me' of self-centered individuals.

Death is a 'social' event rather than the mere cessation of biological functions. As seen by anthropologists, death is not just physical but intensely social, cultural, and political. Otherwise, how can humans be any different from other living beings on this planet? The complex yet beautiful gifts of humankind are social relations, social interactions, love, compassion, empathy, all acquired through the process of enculturation, shared thoughts, actions, and values. While the body is mortal, the soul is immortal. Yet we are all attached to the physical body and experience pain and suffering of oneself and loved ones.

Battles in the minds of those who lost the near and dear ones and the possible reconciliation over the death of a person will take a very long time. The discounted deaths are an unmarked and uncelebrated desecration of the persons, brings out the stark reality of today.

Dr. Sunita Reddy is an Associate Professor with the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU. She is an anthropologist, founder member of ‘Anthropos India Foundation’, and author of three books on disasters.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.

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