Amongst all the many troubling dimensions of the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps the bitterest is the lonely deaths of its victims and the trauma such deaths are causing to surviving loved ones.  Heart-breaking stories are making headlines all over the world. Mid-March, the Daily Telegraph ran a story headlined ‘Beloved father dies a lonely death in coronavirus isolation unit’. According to the British daily, Mr Blakeley, a church choir singer, died from the virus on 13 March, inside a locked-down quarantine unit in North Manchester General Hospital. He is among 35 Britons to have died on UK soil. His son, Jonathan told The Telegraph how his father died a “terribly lonely death” after being swiftly “taken over” by the disease.

The New York Times too focused starkly on loneliness: “Italy’s Coronavirus Victims Face Death Alone, With Funerals Postponed As morgues are inundated, coffins pile up and mourners grieve in isolation…” Traditional funeral services are illegal throughout Italy now… says the report. Many family members cannot attend anyway, because they are themselves sick and in quarantine… And the bodies are piling up in the northern region of Lombardy, especially in the province of Bergamo where hospital morgues are inundated. Believers are taking the “absence” of funerals especially hard.

In a video chat with Michael Barbaro, an American journalist and host of The New York Times news podcast, The Daily, Dr. Fabiano Di Marco, a doctor at the heart of the coronavirus crisis in Italy made a poignant revelation:”….another important thing, we have not had the opportunity to allow the relative to come to the hospital  for two reasons … So the patients are alone. And they die alone… We try to call, every day, the relative. But I have to tell you that sometimes, in the confusion … no one remembers to call the relative. So it’s happened that the relative calls the hospital …And the person’s already dead…This new reality we are living started the 23rd of February, not three years ago. OK? Three weeks ago. After three weeks, we are living in another dimension. For me, it’s difficult to think to my life before this. No one can be prepared for this — impossible…”

Significantly, much before the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus began ravaging the world and resulting in lonely deaths, loneliness at death was already a crisis in one of the richest, most advanced nations of the world. In May last year,  Francie Hart Broghammer, MD, chief psychiatry resident at UC Irvine Medical Center , where she is doing clinical work and research examining the social, relational, and spiritual determinants of mental health,  wrote in an essay titled ‘Death by Loneliness’ as part of a RealClearPolicy series: “Economically, America is more prosperous than it has ever been. We are richer, more connected, electronically, and have more information available to us than ever before. And yet, we are in the midst of a crisis that is claiming thousands of American lives: loneliness….Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have aptly named these tragedies ‘Deaths of Despair’…While the statistics are daunting, the reality is devastating…Our material lives may be outwardly prosperous, but our psychological and spiritual lives are in freefall….”

In Japan lonely deaths or ‘Kodokushi’, especially those where the body remains undiscovered for a long period , sometimes months, have traditionally been considered ‘bad deaths’. Indeed in most countries, cultures and communities a lonely death is regarded as most undesirable and yet such deaths are going up almost everywhere. There are of course reasons behind it.  According to Wikipedia, ‘Kodokushi has become an increasing problem in Japan, attributed to economic troubles and Japan’s increasingly elderly population.” In  2018, an Emory WordPress  site carried a very interesting article entitled ‘Anthropological Perspectives on Death’ in which its writer Tyra Whye notes that as the world becomes, debatably, more progressive, relationship status is not as important, especially in Japan…People are living longer and accomplishing more due to the advancement of biomedical technologies which has shifted our values… and the relationship lifestyle forever..…it is just sad that when an individual chooses themself over others, they suffer a lonely death where their body sits and decomposes until someone else’s life is affected by the death.”

In December last year, journalist T.L. Andrews made the point in ‘Quartz’ that more people around the world are dying alone…Eventually, our problems cannot be solved by money, or a new app. “At some point, we just need people to literally be there.…My neighbour and I are both part of the more-than 300 million single-person households around the world, accounting for 15% of the global population. This ratio tends to be larger in many European countries: More than 50% of households in Sweden, Denmark, and Lithuania are made up of just one person, and its 40%-50% in Germany, Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands, France, Latvia, and Austria. In the United States, it’s 28%. In developed countries, the proportion of people living on their own has doubled since the 1960s. “…A recent loneliness survey conducted by the BBC asked 55,000 people to think about the quality of their relationships. It emerged that adults between the ages of 16 and 24 were the loneliest, with 40% stating that they felt lonely “often” or “very often.” …The trend cuts across cultures, too: The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed rich countries with the Economist in 2018 and found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America, and 23% in Britain always or often felt lonely. This feeling has a dramatic impact on actual life expectancy. A review of 148 studies with 308,849 participants published by Holt-Lunstad in 2010 found that people who had weaker social ties had a 50% higher chance of dying early than those with stronger ties.”

Sadly, in India too lonely deaths are increasing as lifestyles change. Several very important questions are rooted in the growing incidence of loneliness. They are very important because coronavirus deaths will eventually subside but lonely deaths will continue to rise. For instance, since the magnitude and emotional impact of lonely deaths is so great and devastating on earth, what happens in the afterlife or the other world to a person who has died a lonely death? Is the spirit or soul of such a person ‘afflicted’ permanently, with the ‘affliction’ causing it continual suffering and impeding spiritual progress? Are there measures which can counter, reduce or nullify the soul searing effects of a lonely death? Read about them, and more, in the next column.