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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Why we need COVID-19 obituaries

OPINION

As of 21 May, the COVID-19 death statistics in South Africa stand at 369. On 6 April, that number stood at 11. In just over a month, 358 more South Africans have lost their lives to the pandemic and what we know about these citizens, their lives, their contributions to society and the feelings of their families is almost nothing.

While there have been certain cases identified by the media, the archive of obituaries stands at a bare minimum. Hounding members of the deceased families and door-stopping them to ask questions is a matter of morality and ethics. No one wants to be poked and prodded by journalists when they’re grieving, and South African journalists have tussled with the debate of whether to identify the individuals for a while now – with the same discourse occurring globally by several newsrooms.

The clinical question in situations like these is usually centred around whether or not the deceased member was/is considered a public figure. The public figure title – for lack of a better description – is used as a vindication for all forms of coverage. Movie directors and documentary films, for example, require little permission when they’re writing scripts about these public figures and sometimes, disclaimers are issued to protect producers from legal prosecution – unless of course they’re producing authorised biographies. An example of one of these disclaimers would be: Some names and details of these events have been fictionalised for story-telling purposes. In the case of the obituary, however, no such disclaimers exist – nor should it.

In the case of regular people, the public figure argument falls away. And what replaces it something more complex and complicated. On the one hand, releasing names of the individuals could open up a sickening can of worms that may result in harassment of the families, terrorising the deceased about their COVID-19 status, blaming and shaming them – based purely on assumption – about how they contracted it and what the looming doom is for those they left behind and the general public.

But the counter argument to this which needs to be heavily considered is that public figures who get media attention and whose memory lives long after their deaths are often based on a class system.

Outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, we see examples of this all the time – for instance, in the case of women who have been brutally raped and murdered, communities often have to fight and protest to give these women names and faces and have them publicly featured in the media the way any famous person would.

This is because a death is a death and no one’s death regardless of demography or social standing is more important than anyone else’s. There are countless occurrences like these that happen daily that we know nothing about because there is no media coverage and the assumption is that there is no interest, or these people are not important enough and so deaths happen in the darkness.

We argue about this all the time, we fight for the rights of the deceased and we fight for the rights of these communities and the injustices they suffer to be given the same attention as anyone else. It makes me wonder what makes the coverage of COVID-19 any different?

Yes, there was a time when those who carried the virus and who were perhaps most at risk of death were rich travellers who returned from foreign countries. But viruses are a great levelling ground. They can spread anywhere and to anyone. They make no discrepancies between the rich or the poor, or where they live and how they’re able to protect themselves.

The myth of mass occurrences and deaths only affecting the middle to upper classes is one that is expiring as fast as the losses of lives themselves. But how can we clarify this and extinguish this myth completely if we’re only perpetuating it by being so selective of coverage? More than that, the myth carries with it a dangerous symptom – and that is the symptom of misinformation. If we continue in the course of publishing the importance and death of only public figures or people we deem superior, it spreads a destructive fire fuelled by the fiction that lower classes are immune and untouchable and safer than those who sit higher in the economic pyramid – and this naturally manifests in taking fewer precautions in areas where social distancing is already at a disadvantage for so many people.

I am for the obituary. It is only through the obituary that we somehow get to look into the eyes of a lived life. That we get to see people in ways we may not have considered before. And more than that, the obit is obviously the opposite of the non-obit – it carries with it the powerful message of the effects of the virus itself in terms that are relatable, non-scientific, accessible and empathetic.

An entire life cannot be reduced to one detail: xxx died of coronavirus. A life is a whole meaningful picture painted by the people who left us and recaptured by those they left behind. Public figure or not, everyone is loved by someone, everyone is missed by someone and every single person has changed someone’s life in ways we will never know about or understand unless we challenge ourselves to try and engage with it.

What do we know about our someone’s elder who passed on? Do we know that they loved to have a good time, that they always liked to have their tea lukewarm at a certain time of day and no matter what life threw at them, that lukewarm tea was the certainty of a smile at 4pm in the afternoon?

What do we know about the neighbour who lived in a dense community on the outskirts of town who took a taxi to work every day and how everyone always looked forward to her company on their long journey on the N1 because she was a great storyteller and always had a great joke to share?

What do we know about the man on the corner who always wore old clothes but always read new books?

What do we know about the nurses and doctors and cleaners and cooks in hospitals who somehow found it in their hearts to make patients smile with a cup of jelly or a check-in or a “how are you” or a made-up pet name to make them feel warm and known and seen?

All these people are irreplaceable, and the world deserves to know they exist and that now we have to exist without them. The death of a single person unknown to us may not be felt, but there are people who are feeling that loss extremely deeply and it’s through their words and quotes and anecdotes that their lives become real to the rest of us, that the virus becomes real to the rest of us and the reality that someone we know can be lost to us as well.

Maybe our assumption is that we’re not expected to feel any type of way about any of this, but the thing about feelings is that without them, all we have is thought and thought is sometimes a dark and uncertain thing, whereas feelings are the fundamental fibres of humanity. If we can miss someone famous, we can miss someone faceless.

Yes, the Press Code must be respected and it clearly states that privacy and dignity must be respected unless in the case of public interest – that it would be wise to respect the wishes of those who are directly affected by the death of a family member from the virus – unless they are a public figure. And I am not advocating for intruding people’s privacy or disrespecting their wishes or defying the ends of dignity. I am advocating for the replacement of statistics with a nuanced sensitivity to provide us all with a connection to our own humanness and the humanity of others.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.