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Covid-19: How fear of death is blinding the world.

There is much written at the moment about our current worldwide situation around covid-19, lockdowns, and general reactions to it. Now before you think you reeeeeally don’t need to be reading yet another article on the topic…bear with me. What I want to share here is particularly around fear of death and how this impacts the current climate we find ourselves in.

For someone who sees death a bit differently to most people, this year has become a fascinating and disturbing study in what happens when people’s fear of death is not so much activated, as set completely alight. And done so worldwide, collectively. With daily fuel being added to the fire. With fear being piled on top of fear. It has been such an indication of what an unhealthy relationship with death we largely have, and how that drives us when that fear is stoked.

In general, we need to talk about death far more than we do, and in a more natural way. There are many benefits to this, but one of the biggies for me in my line of work is that the ability to look logically and calmly at death totally impacts how the world sees and deals with grief. I help people to heal completely from grief after a death in their life. But this is something most people believe is impossible, and it has a lot to do with our relationship with death overall.

I realised long ago that for there to be a truly big shift in how the world sees (and then processes) grief, there first has to be a truly big shift in how people look at death in the first place. i.e. they actually need to be able to look at it properly at all. If you can’t look death in the eye, naturally and calmly, then you simply can’t think logically about it or about grief, and you certainly can’t ask any critical questions or explore your beliefs, assumptions and fears. People simply can’t ask useful questions about the old, tired narrative we’ve been told about grief while they look at the overall topic of death through fear-tinted glasses. You can’t look at it and think about it differently when it’s setting off a deep (often subconscious) alarm system whenever you get within 10 feet of the topic.

And the exact same situation has been playing out this year with covid-19. Where collectively the world’s fear-of-death panic button has been pushed…and no matter what information emerges and how drastically it is downgraded, the reaction is still the same, because the button has been pushed and it is still engaged. Because, in this case, fear wins and that self-preservation instinct takes over everything else.

When all of ’this’ began, we didn’t really know what was happening. What is this? Who is at risk? What is the death rate and survival rate? How many might die? How is it spread? Where will it go and who will it kill?

People were dying in China. On the streets, we were told. And then it started to spread internationally. Numbers started to grow, and these numbers started getting fed to us, through every form of media, daily. And people started getting very scared.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly worried at first. Like many. But then we were told greater and greater infection numbers, more and more deaths, wider and wider spread. People around me began to get very frightened. And I began to worry too. But the first thing I wanted to do was get some perspective on the numbers, so I could see exactly how serious this was.

One of the big problems this year has been that people who have absolutely no clue at all how many people die on any given day/week/month/year, and of what, and where, are being bombarded with death numbers every day for the first time in their lives. Even I didn’t know death stats, and this is an area I spend a lot of time. And if you have no perspective, these numbers can (and do) alarm. Sometimes unnecessarily. Numbers and stats are meaningless without perspective. You might get very excited indeed when someone gifts you 1,000,000 Indonesian rupiah. But you don’t know if this is a lot of money or a little (it’s about $66USD) until you get some perspective. You have no idea if it’s a high or low amount until you know how it fits in with other currencies.

First I wanted to know how many people die on any given day around the world. What I found out was that around 150,000 people die every day. Every single day. No, not of covid-19. No, not just in the past few months. On your average run-of the-mill day. That’s 1,050,000 every week. That’s 4,550,000 every month. That’s 54,600,000 every year. Give or take.

I think it’s worth sitting with that for a minute because I bet you didn’t know those numbers. I didn’t. Most people don’t. They don’t know that in just their regular journey from one Monday morning to the next that over a million people have died. And I bet they don’t have any idea where these people are, or what they died of (and whether these things are a risk to themselves), and what ages these people were. A lot of people die. All the time. We are just largely unaware of it is all.

Then I thought it made sense to understand death numbers for another infectious virus – one we know well and see regularly – the seasonal flu. The official figures for flu deaths are up to 650,000 each year worldwide. Now you may know this number….but I bet that if you did then you didn’t know it until 2020. I didn’t either. So the seasonal flu can kill up to this many in a regular year…every single year that passes…and no-one batts an eyelid. It’s considered a part of life. And this is a virus with a vaccine – though a largely ineffective one (which you’ll know if you’ve researched its’ efficacy rates). So every year up to 650,000 can die from flu around the world and there’s no massive public reaction. In fact, there is no public reaction at all. I bet that even if there was an outlier year with, for arguments sake, an extra 100-150,000 flu deaths on top of that it wouldn’t make much of difference either and there would still be no huge worldwide reaction. We don’t do anything for the flu – no lockdowns (of any level), no closed schools and businesses, no border closures, not even a fraction of the measures we’ve seen this year.

Next I thought it would be worth looking at other causes of death worldwide, both for perspective and also to see what other causes of death we accept without the kind of reaction we have seen to covid-19 this year. These are typically things that we could do something about if we wanted to take drastic action against them, but don’t.

The biggest cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease which kills close to 18 million people a year. The next highest is cancer at around 9.5 million. That 27.5 million people a year just from these two. And much of this – not all, but a lot – is down to lifestyle. But we don’t mandate exercise, ban unhealthy eating or alcohol or cigarettes.

What about road deaths? Well this is a good one and, I think, worth comparing because we could take extreme actions to limit this. Ban private vehicles and ramp up public transport. Cut all speed limits in half. Surely these steps would have a huge impact on the 1.2 million road deaths a year reported worldwide. So far more people die on the roads every year than the total reported covid deaths….but that is apparently just part of life.

This almost completed my initial research so I could understand what a truly big number of deaths is and how worried I should really be. Then I spoke to a friend who was terrified for the safety of their teen, who was an essential worker (so worked through lockdown), after seeing reports of 3 seperate teens around the world who had reportedly died of covid. Now statistically 3 teenagers worldwide is infinitesimal….but it was close enough to home to scare my friend. So, out of interest, I looked up whether any teenagers ever die of the common cold. I can’t remember the details now but yes, the answer is yes. The cold is a respiratory illness and yes, people – including some young people – do die from it sometimes. The reality is that there probably isn’t a single cause of death that doesn’t claim some teenagers every year. But, and this is exactly what I’m talking about, if you haven’t considered death and the fact that life is a risk and that you, and yes your child too, could die from a bunch of things, any time at all, then you will be freaked out big-time when someone highlights this risk to you. It won’t matter that the risk is almost not worth mentioning (to this age group), that there are thousands of other risks, and that many of these other risks are far more risky and far more common to teenagers than this particular one. None of this will matter. As your panic button has been pushed, the alarms are going off, and fear is running the show.

The perspective I got showed me that fear wasn’t warranted. If I didn’t fear the flu every winter, then I probably didn’t need to fear this virus. And that I certainly didn’t need to fear it more than cancer or heart disease (if I even chose to live in fear of those) as they are far more likely to kill me and those I love than any virus we’ve ever seen. And that if I wasn’t frightened every time I got into a car, then I needn’t be worried about this. But I watched as the world was. People didn’t wait till the death toll got over 650,000 (the perfectly acceptable number of flu deaths every year) to start being frightened. They were frightened when it was 65,000 deaths. They were frightened when it was 650 deaths. Hell, I think many started to get frightened when it was only 65 deaths. In NZ, even the 25 covid-19 attributed deaths are well-known and considered a tragedy. I have to wonder what people think about the 500 flu deaths that we have every single year in this country.

So that was the beginning. People were panicking without perspective. I saw someone on facebook saying that “up to a million Kiwis would have died”. Not even the most ridiculous modelling predicted numbers like that. But it doesn’t matter when fear takes over.

And this also explains what I have watched happening since then.

As time went on and clearer information came out, the high death rate we were told we would see was downgraded and downgraded and downgraded some more, until it is somewhere from 0.1- 0.6 now. About a tenth as deadly as we were initially told. Are people generally a tenth as frightened? Nope.

In the start we didn’t know who was at a risk. It could be everyone. It became clear quickly that it was only the elderly and immunocompromised. Was everyone else less afraid? Not really. Did we take measures to protect those particular groups instead of locking down everyone. Nope. Most of the countries that locked down (including my own) stuck to their guns and kept everyone locked down. I think it’s worth noting that these are the exact same groups most at risk in flu season and we’ve never gone anywhere close to the current lengths to protect them.

We were told initially that spread wasn’t understood and that asymptomatic spread could be huge (so any one of us could be a walking risk to others)……and then even the World Heath Organisation came out saying that asymptomatic carriers were rare. Were people less afraid of each other now? Nope.

Then the reports started coming out of the harm done by lockdowns. The countries with the harshest lock-downs seeing domestic and child abuse increases, self-harm and suicide rates rising, and poverty – and all that comes with it – increasing. And the thing is that there is no great mystery why. We understand the problems caused by lockdowns – it’s common sense. Then we saw that deaths from other causes, like cancer, were rising as people were too scared (of covid-19) to go to hospital and not getting treated as early as they needed to. Then global organisations reporting that 120 million extra people worldwide (and this is the lowest estimate I’ve seen), largely in the poorest countries, would be pushed to starvation-level poverty because of the locking down of many of the richest countries. Articles and studies started coming in showing the huge damage done by lockdowns and that these would do more damage and kill more people than the virus itself. Did the world suddenly wake up and all of our leaders start to work on new, more sustainable plans? Not really, no.

And what about when more and more reports came out questioning the validity of the numbers in many countries, with the UK for example now saying up to a third of their reported covid-19 deaths may not have been covid at all, and the CDC updating their website with the information that only 6% of the US covid deaths were attributed only to covid – that the other 94% had, on average, 2-3 comordibities and were largely in the older age group. Yes I know this doesn’t mean that only 6% of the reported deaths were because of covid. But it also means that there is no way 100% of the reported deaths should have been labelled covid. This drops the overall death numbers and rates dramatically. Did people’s fear drop dramatically? No.

Why? Why didn’t the fear level drop as the seriousness of this virus did? Why didn’t the fear level drop as the Infection Fatality Rate did? Because it wasn’t about the facts. It wasn’t about logic and rationale. It was about fear. Specifically, fear of death.

What I’ve realised is that for those who have had their panic button pushed…none of this matters. New information doesn’t matter. Just the fear.

People don’t like to think of death. And the reality is, though this may sound stupid, most don’t think they’re going to die. Well at least not until they’re 90 years old or so. This is precisely why most people don’t make the wills that they should, why many parents haven’t legally appointed guardians for their children ‘just in case’, and why the person under 80 (or even many times older) who has made a funeral plan is very rare. Because people don’t think they need to worry about death….and they don’t actually want to think about it at all really, thank you very much.

Our collective relationship with death is that we don’t want to know. That it’s a terrible, unnatural thing that shouldn’t happen to us (it’s perfectly natural in every other part of nature) and that it’s weird and morbid and potentially even bad luck to talk about it….so we’ll do our best not to. And because this is common and accepted, we think it’s natural. It couldn’t be any more unnatural. To live in denial of the one guarantee in life.

This is where the panic button comes in. It’s a common experience for those who are grieving a death that they can feel abandoned by many in their lives while they go through their grief. When those they assumed would be there for them aren’t there at all. And the more challenging the death, for example a suicide or the death of a child, then the more extreme this will be. This isn’t because people are mostly uncaring assholes, or because we are terrible judges of character and pick friends who happen to be uncaring assholes. It’s that when we go through death we remind people of something they don’t want to be reminded of – that they will die and that everyone they love will die. And their panic button can go off and will have them doing everything they can to feel safe again. And for some that will be to get as far away from the reminder (you) as possible. Especially if you’ve reminded them of something they truly don’t want to contemplate, like that their small child could die of cancer, or their healthy middle-aged partner could die suddenly in a car accident.

Fear of death creates certain reactions that have little to do with logic and everything to do with perceived safety. In the current climate we see a similar reaction when it comes to the overreach of governments and removal of people’s basic human rights. Many people simply don’t care and are happy to hand over every right they have to their governrment without any concern at all, because they believe the government will keep them safe from the single threat that currently worries them. And safety and self-preservation is all that matters when you’re in that space.

I was very alarmed when our NZ Prime Minister informed the country that our government should be our “single source of truth”. My first thought was “surely that should set off alarm bells for anybody who hears it!” But for many it didn’t, because there is already a much louder and more urgent alarm going off. The YOU-MIGHT-DIE alarm.

My friend was frightened for her child. Now it isn’t that her child was never at risk of death or that suddenly there was something which threatened her life. Her life was at a risk every day (life is risky!) from all sorts of things…..but my friend probably hadn’t considered this before, or at least not regularly enough to come to terms with the reality.

People are afraid of this virus because they have been told to be afraid. Your average person doesn’t live in terror of heart disease and cancer and act accordingly (even though they are hugely more likely to die from these than covid-19). They don’t fear flu each winter season or worry every time they get into a car. Why? Because no-one is showing them the death toll rising every single day for these causes of death. Perhaps if our Prime Minister were to come on TV to personally announce every single one of 500 flu deaths we have in NZ each year then people would start to be terrified of that instead. But they aren’t.

Now the question of why all this is happening isn’t relevant here. This isn’t about ‘conspiracy theories’ or who is pulling whose strings for how much money, etc. I don’t have the answers to any of that. But you don’t have to know what’s driving the mainstream narrative to be able to question the sense and logic, or lack thereof, of the fear that is being drummed up. Forget what ‘they’ (whoever they might be) are up to right now and why….and think about what you’re up to. Are you living in unnecessary fear? Are you giving away your power to, frankly, whoever the hell will take it so you can feel safer and better and calmer? Do you feel that this is one of the greatest threats to our lives we have ever faced (even though the information available answers with a resounding ‘no!’)?

The numbers don’t add up. But they don’t need to. Because the fear does. It’s the fear that adds up. When we are being fed 3 square meals of fear a day (and snacks in between) it catches on….and we run with it. This is what is happening. This is why, for most people, the fear is not dissipating as it should. Because the information doesn’t matter. Just the fear.

Now this isn’t anyone’s own fault. People aren’t stupid, just scared. And I fear that this blog may be written simply to fulfil my own need to empty my head of this article, which has been bugging me for quite a few months now (Out you go!). Because it may well be that those who have already been able to step back from their fear and get some perspective, already get what I’m saying and won’t gain much from these words. And that those that really need to hear them either won’t read them or won’t take them in, labelling me as some kind of tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy theorist who wants everyone’s ageing parents to die because I just love death so much. The numbers and facts will fall by the wayside no matter how I write them because, again, none of it matters and none of it will silence that panic and that alarm.

So if you are one of those wondering why people are still so frightened when you can see it doesn’t make sense…then know that this is what it is: fear of death has been triggered. This is one of people’s deepest fears and is the reason why the only thing that many believe will make them safe is when the threat is completely gone.

And if you are someone who has been in fear and stayed in fear but are ready to start examining your thoughts and feelings…and whether they really are in line with reality (or not), then I invite you first to come to the door that the fear has opened. The door to the knowledge that you will die, and so will everyone you love, and that you can’t know when and of what. That you can be the healthiest you can, and live your days as if they aren’t actually unlimited (fancy that!), and that you can do a better job of both of these things when you accept the reality of your own mortality instead of hiding from it. Embracing death awareness isn’t morbid or weird or dark. Indeed I’d argue it’s morbid and weird and dark to deny it. It’s empowering and enlightening and connects you more to your own life and to those you love.

This is the starting place. And, as the cliche goes, it sure as shit isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

I realise as I write this that there is so much more I want to say about how we can find more grace around death, and how this fear coming up and death being in our faces is a beautiful opportunity to move in that direction – to have a more harmonious relationship with ourselves, each other, death, nature. But I think I’ll make that a part two. So watch this space! (Pssst I’ve written it now – you’ll find it here.)