COVID victims: In death as in life, the poor remain unseen

Leading obituary writers discuss who gets to be publicly memorialised in death — and who doesn’t

The New York Times on Sunday 24 May 2020 prints the names of 1,000 US victims of COVID, as the country’s pandemic death toll neared 100,000 |Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo

After two years of COVID and a global death toll of more than six million, the pandemic has revealed a stark truth: death is the great leveller.

But this much hasn’t been clear from the obituary pages of news outlets around the world, which have mostly documented the pandemic-related passings of only the rich and famous.

In death as in life, the poor — on whom the pandemic has taken the greatest toll — remain mostly unseen.

“COVID-19 itself is egalitarian, so Prince Charles has it, Camilla has it,” obituaries scholar Nigel Starck tells openDemocracy on Zoom from Adelaide, Australia, referring to how the virus can infect anyone.

But just as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have borne the brunt of the pandemic, COVID has discriminated in terms of obituaries, Starck says. “It hasn’t produced the same inclusive effect as 9/11, the Bali bombings and 7/7 on the obituary, when the mere fact of a traumatic end made someone worth writing about even though they weren’t famous.”

Starck, whose doctoral thesis on obituary practices in the US, UK and Australia was published as a book, ‘Life after Death’, notes the democratising effects of the three terrorist bombing spectaculars. After 11 September 2001, he says, The New York Times decided it wouldn’t necessarily concentrate on the A-list dead, instead appraising and recounting ordinary lives. “It was a brand of equality provoked by acts of fanatical outrage,” says Starck.

For the first time, cause of death is being questioned. ‘Readers write in to ask: Did someone did with COVID or from it?’

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall


PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university