This is a guest post by Dr Peter Hickman, an experienced UK medical practitioner, and a regular commenter on The Hump.
The phrase “every death is a tragedy” has been repeated multiple times by the Prime Minister and other politicians during the 2020/21 SARS-Cov-2 Coronavirus pandemic. What does “every death is a tragedy” actually mean, and is it a useful or appropriate thing to say?
The online Oxford English dictionary defines a tragedy as, “An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe”, whereas the online Cambridge English dictionary defines a tragedy as, “A very sad event or situation, especially one involving death or suffering”. Accordingly, at least some deaths from Covid-19 might legitimately be termed “a tragedy”. But does it help to refer to every Covid-19 death as a tragedy, on the grounds that suffering and sadness are involved, and, if so, is this how we should describe all deaths, whatever the cause?
A retired GP friend of mine once said, “Doctors have a 100% failure rate”. He was observing that everyone eventually dies, regardless of medical interventions. It’s a natural and inevitable event. Is every death a tragedy? Is the expected death of an elderly person who has lived a full life a tragedy? We used to say that human life expectancy was “three score years and ten” (70yrs). This has increased. Average life expectancy in the UK (2020) is 81yrs. The average age for all Covid-19 deaths is 82.4 yrs. That means that most of those who die from Covid-19 have lived longer than the current average life expectancy. Is it tragic if you die after living longer than most other people of your generation?
What about those folk who are enduring considerable suffering from unremitting conditions such as cancer, motor neurone disease or dementia? When they die, do we not sometimes think that their passing is a relief, even a blessing, rather than a tragedy? Over my 45 years of clinical practice I have attended many elderly folk who have told me that they were ready to die. Some were lonely or infirm and had a poor quality of life. Others simply felt they had lived for long enough and were content for it to end. A few with a strong religious faith, whilst not looking forward to the process of dying, were anticipating a better life in the hereafter. Is it a tragedy when someone who wants to die finally does so?
There were 313,233 deaths in the UK in 2020, of which 72,178 died with (but not necessarily of) Covid-19. So at least 241,055 died of other conditions, such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, etc. Do we normally think of the majority of these non-Coronavirus deaths as a tragedy? No, I don’t think so.
During the Coronavirus pandemic we have come to think of the virus as unique because it has killed so many people. But, although it is a new variant of coronavirus, it is not exceptional. It is one of several coronaviruses, some of which are more lethal than SARS-CoV-2, such as MERS-CoV, and some of which have been endemic for years and mostly cause a mild illness like the common cold. SARS-CoV-2 is just one of a number of potentially lethal viruses, like Influenza (which killed 50,000 people in the UK in 2017/18, despite a prior vaccination program). SARS-CoV-2 is yet another organism amongst many viruses and bacteria that cause death through lower respiratory infection. And lower respiratory infections are the fourth common cause of death in the world. Covid-19 is not that special. There are lots of different ways to die, and Covid-19 is just one of them.
Now, I do accept that it may be reasonable to refer to some deaths as tragic because they were the cause of great suffering or distress to those left behind. This is particularly the case when someone dies young, or in harrowing circumstances.
Let me give you some examples of deaths in my own family. My mother Ruby died from a brain haemorrhage aged 44yrs, leaving my father and five young children. My nephew David died in his sleep from sudden arrhythmic death syndrome aged 25yrs. My niece Jenny died from stomach cancer before she was 30yrs old. My sister Linda and my brother Tim both died from stomach cancer in their 50’s. My step-mum Esther, my uncle Tom and my aunt Joan all died from “old age” in their 90’s. Some of these deaths were the occasion of great distress for relatives and might be thought of as tragic. Others were ‘expected’ deaths in elderly folk and were not tragic.
All deaths in my family so far have had one thing in common. They involved people who had a living faith in God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. For those family members left behind, the belief that they would one day see their loved one again was a comfort in their distress.
The departed were Christians who died with a hope of eternal life. For us, the greater tragedy would have been if any of our loved ones had died without such a hope.