Wednesday, 25 March 2020


“My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: There is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition.” - Yann Martel

Memento mori – “Remember you will die”. An apt reminder in these days of COVID-19, with deaths due to infection with this sinister and highly contagious virus climbing to higher and more alarming levels day by day, worldwide. We look at the deserted streets in our cities and we are reminded of our mortality. We look in shock as military trucks in Italy convey scores of corpses to a place where they will be prepared for burial, and memento mori, the Latin phrase resounds through the centuries to remind the survivors that death lies in wait, that they too will die. Madrid in Spain is the new epicentre of COVID-19 in the world and a huge skating rink has been converted to a temporary morgue to hold the hundreds of corpses. News bulletins inform us of increasing infection transmission rates and we are obliged to think: “Am I next? What if I get sick? What if I get very sick? What if I can’t be cured? What if I die?

Most people in our society push the idea of their death into the darkest and deepest crypts of their mind. Our culture has a become a life culture, a youth and pleasure-seeking culture. Death has been sanitised and has become something that is seen mainly on the TV screen, in movies, in video games, as a fitting end to deserving miscreants. We have been given a diet of ‘cartoonified’ death (especially as it relates to an untimely and violent death), where death is trivialised and treated with a contemptuous disregard. The more we see the ease with which death is meted out to others on screen, the more it has made our own death a more distant and unlikely possibility – after all we live in the real world, don’t we?

Think of the hypothetical situation where you are infected with the deadly Coronavirus and the even more hypothetical eventuality where you will be told: “You have two days to live…” What would you do? Is what you do much different to what you would do if you had been told: “You have two weeks to live.” Or perhaps: “You will die in two months…” Or even “You have two years of life left!” What then determines your course of action? Many around the world have had to deal with this scenario, confronting a horrific and rapid death as something they or a family member will go through  in a matter of days.

The religious amongst us may say: Vanitas vanitatum, omnia est vanitas; which you will find in Ecclesiastes 1:1 onward: 
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 

In the past when life on earth was seen to be a transient and preparatory phase for life eternal, death was seen as a liberation, a door through which we passed to be greeted by the angels of paradise and its eternal bliss. Death was then a part of life and a promise of liberation from all of our wordly cares and toil. None feared death then, provided one lived a devout and God-fearing life with thoughts and deeds as stipulated by the Gospels.

We have ‘progressed’ and ‘evolved’ socially. Our lay society largely views death as an abrupt end to life, an eternal and dreamless sleep – or even more bluntly perhaps, an infinitude of non-being. Is it a surprise then that we nowadays live our life seeking pleasures, riches, enjoyment, shallow and constant gratifications of every one of our whims and selfish desires? Is it a surprise that we shun even the thought of death and remove from everyday existence even the mention of the word? How many euphemisms we have devised to replace the straightforward ‘she died’? “She passed away; she perished; she went the way of all flesh; she crossed the great divide; she went to meet her Maker; she croaked it; she kicked the bucket…” And so on.

Enter Coronavirus from stage left. It brings with it a sharp sickle, shining bright, its blade whetted and ready to be used. All are vulnerable, all may become horribly sick, all are at risk of dying. Yes, dying, not undergoing some strange linguistic euphemistic transmogrification. We are suddenly jolted back into the grim reality of death as an end to life. And even more so we are forced to contemplate the possibility of an unfair, premature, agonising death far from those we love and who love us. A rapid, sombre funeral (if we’re lucky!) to follow, no ‘celebration’ of our life and the telling of funny anecdotes in the upbeat ceremony, no playing of our favourite pop song.

To add insult to injury, COVID-19 has hit at the foundation of our comfortable, pleasurable existence. Worldwide, economies teeter, stock prices tumble, politicians flounder and pass bill after bill in parliament trying to rescue nations from recession, the world from a depression. Shops close, companies fold, our jobs are at risk, our lifestyle with its multitudinous delights has suddenly been degraded, all those activities which readily gave us amusing diversions and pointless recreations have suddenly ceased. The restaurants and bars have closed, the spectator sports have stopped, the cinemas, the discos, the clubs, the multitude of crowd-pleasers that filled our vacuous existence are all ‘temporarily suspended’.

Instead, we are now confined at home and forced to be alone with our worrying thoughts about life, death, the universe and everything. A reassessment of our existence to date inevitably follows. If we are lucky, we share our home with family, a partner, a pet, or even compatible company. The unlucky amongst us close our door and remain truly alone, making the isolation and ‘social distancing’ even more absolute, more trying, more gnawingly soul-destroying.

Really, when we consider everything, is it surprising that we have panicked? Is it so astounding that people all over the world are behaving in very strange ways? It is such great revelation when we see the scenes of mass hysteria, when we observe people doing whatever they believe will avert the possibility of their infection and the highly unpleasant dénouement it often entails? After all that, buying and stashing toilet paper seems to be a logical and greatly satisfying activity, which makes us better able to deal with the insanity of the situation we have to live through. I think I’m running low, I need to go and buy a few rolls…


  1. How true this all is..... Disheartening and very sad, but maybe this was what we all needed to wake ourselves up and rethink our civilization, our existence? I look forward to more of your entries. Thank you for writing on the coronavirus.

  2. As someone who lives modestly (and who enjoys reading), I can identify with what you are writing here. Death is part of life and while it shouldn't take over our life, coming to terms with it helps us live life more fully.

  3. PS: I really don't get this whole toilet paper business!