• Jean Rafferty

A Child Dying Alone

It’s the saddest thing in the world, a child dying alone. I know I was not the only one in tears this week at the thought of 13 year old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab gasping for breath, his lungs filling up with mucus. No-one there to hold his hand as he passed away.

Now, my sadness about his lonely death has been compounded by a sense of disbelief. Have we thrown compassion and common sense away with our human rights? Ismail’s mother was prevented from sitting with him because of the highly infectious nature of coronavirus yet she was presumably the one who brought him into the hospital in the first place and will presumably have to self isolate for that reason too. The only positive thing about this little boy’s death is that he was in a medically induced coma so perhaps wasn’t aware of what was happening to him.

But his mother Sadiya must be bereft, to lose her son and not even to be able to be with him at the end. A family friend told the Daily Mail, ‘She lost her husband a few years ago and now this has happened. I've spoken to her briefly but she is barely able to say anything.’

She is caught in a world of grief but we are caught in a world of fear, a kind of Alaska, in Harold Pinter’s phrase. His eponymous play described the illness encephalitis lethargica, where people were locked into a state of glacial immersion, often unable to move or speak or respond to the world around them. The epidemic of 1916-17 left a million people with the disease, which was only alleviated with the arrival of the wonder drug L-DOPA.

That is what the world feels like to me just now. We are entombed in an iceberg, unable to focus on anything other than our fear of coronavirus and waiting for a wonder drug that won’t arrive any time soon. This time, though, we are trapped not because of something outside ourselves, but because that is the world we have made.

We could have prepared for pandemic, as the medical profession advised, by storing protective equipment and ventilators. But we chose not to, because the politicians said we couldn’t afford it.

We were able to afford £6.2bn for a pair of aircraft carriers in 2011. If we’d bought 50000 ventilators at the market price of £12500 it would have cost just one-tenth of that. ‘But an aircraft carrier is a visible display of power, while 50,000 ventilators would ideally be bought in secret,’ says Harry Lambert of the New Statesman.

Last week the government called on local councils to house the homeless. There are 320000 of them on the streets of Britain so we can’t say we didn’t notice. We could have housed them at any time but didn’t.

This week the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierres called for a global ceasefire. ‘End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world,’ he said. ‘It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere. Now. That is `what our human family needs, now more than ever.’

As a member of peace charity Dove Tales I couldn’t agree more, but the UN could have called for global ceasefire at any time and didn’t. Instead most of the world’s major democracies shore up their economies with arms sales.

There are so many things we could have done and didn’t. We could have battled the poisonous inequity of our society by giving workers affected by coronavirus an equal income; instead the poorest in society will pay for all this in the end. We could have found a place in our lives for refugees; instead they will stay stuck in squalid camps where the virus will rip through the population like wildfire.

We could use this time to change the world and become more compassionate but we won’t. 24 million people in the Yemen are on the brink of starvation because of the war. A million people forced to flee Syria in the last couple of months are parked in refugee camps along the Turkish border. Over a million Rohingya in Bangladesh. And an extra plague, the plague of locusts, has descended on east Africa. According to Reuters, approximately 24 million people in the region will struggle to feed their families because there aren’t enough pesticides to combat the unprecedented swarms arriving - coronavirus has halted global supply chains. Biblical numbers, though there’s nothing holy about them.

Million upon million upon million. These are figures we should be worrying about but we don’t.

I have known a lot of death. Friends have died from murder and suicide and heart attacks, all gone before their time. My father died at the age of 88 not wanting to go, my mother at the same age, barely knowing she was here. My beloved brother collapsed at work and went into the corridor to be alone, so that his pupils wouldn’t be frightened. In Rwanda I saw bodies stacked up in hessian sacks at the side of the road, hundreds of them, just left to rot in the sun.

No death is easy.

What made it unbearable in Rwanda was the lack of respect for the dead. That’s what makes the rituals of death so important in every culture in the world. The platitude is that they give the bereaved person closure though I’ve never known that to be the case myself. Nine years after my brother’s death, someone I met told me they knew him and my eyes filled up with tears. ‘Too soon,’ she said apologetically. But his funeral gave me comfort because over two hundred people were there. Some were friends, some family, some were pupils and colleagues. Their presence there meant that his death mattered. He mattered.

I feel for Sadiya Abdulwahab, not able to take comfort from the people she loves. She will never stop mourning her son but she should at least have had a friend’s arm to go round her, a friend to hold her hand - as she should have been able to hold Ismail’s hand when he died.

If we can’t live well we should at least help people to die well.