When you walk the wall
The families of the UK’s 156k Covid victims have made a wall of love and remembrance. Now the fight is on to make the wall a permanent memorial
One hundred and fifty-six thousand – and counting. It’s impossible to fathom the scale of loss in the last year – until you walk the wall.
The National Covid Memorial Wall is the creation of bereaved families, many of them young adults in their 20s and 30s, who lost their loved ones – mums and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents and others – to a deadly virus emboldened by state indifference and indecision.
The wall, adjacent to St Thomas’ Hospital in London, runs parallel to the Thames near Westminster Bridge. Located just opposite the Houses of Parliament, it stretches nearly a mile long and takes a full ten minutes to walk.
Each heart on the wall is individually hand-painted. And each heart represents a singular, precious life – a universe of experience, memories and love – whose individual loss is amplified exponentially by the grief of their countless loved ones. They will never be the same.
‘We tried to hold on to any little bit of hope’
A Unite member and factory worker in Wigan, Shaun Brady was 55 years old when he died.
“He was a Wigan man through and through,” Shaun’s daughter Hannah told uniteEXTRA. “He had worked at the same factory for 34 years. He was really committed to his job – he hadn’t had a day off sick since I was about three years old and I’m 25 now.” But work was only a fraction of Shaun’s life.
“Most importantly, he was my dad and my sister Tasha’s dad,” Hannah noted. “He was also really passionate about charity and youth football. He’d been a volunteer referee since he was 18, and he taught free after school football clubs for children of all ages and abilities.
“He was a keen baker, although some of it wasn’t quite edible - but we still ate it! He loved travelling and finding his own independence. He renewed his passport at 54 and never got a chance to use it.”
Like many Covid bereaved, Hannah and her sister Tasha have suffered profoundly in the absence of the usual rituals which have helped humans cope since time immemorial with grief and serious illness – no hospital visits, no hugs at the funeral.
“He had been on a ventilator in a coma for 42 nights, so that was us ringing hospital for 42 days, four times a day,” Hannah recalled. “But every time we called, we just heard how panicked and tired and worried the nurses were, as we tried to get as much information as possible and tried to just hold on to any little bit of hope.
“Dad had a few really good days and a few days when we’d nearly lost him. And on May 16 we got the call to say there was nothing more that they could do, so they asked us if we could come up and put PPE on and hold on to him as tightly as possible. They turned down his ventilator and we watched him die.”
This was only the beginning of the suffering that Hannah and her family endured.
“I can’t begin to describe what it feels like walking out of that intensive care unit knowing that your dad was now going to be placed in a hazardous waste bag, put in a coffin, and that was all you could do for him – no dressing him, no seeing him in a chapel of rest. To stand two metres apart from the people that you’re closest to at a funeral is inhumane – it’s heartbreaking.”
“There’s no human contact and that’s the one thing that can help you in grief,” she explained. “It means that a lot of the Covid bereaved are suffering from things like prolonged grief syndrome and PTSD from what we saw in ICUs.”
Hannah on her dad, Unite member Shaun Brady. Shaun was 55
“I can’t begin to describe what it feels like walking out of that intensive care unit knowing that your dad was now going to be placed in a hazardous waste bag, put in a coffin, and that was all you could do for him – no dressing him, no seeing him in a chapel of rest. To stand two metres apart from the people that you’re closest to at a funeral is inhumane – it’s heartbreaking”
‘He was my hero’
Ian Fowler was a semi-retired design engineer at JLR Castle Bromwich and a Unite member, who lost his life to coronavirus at the age of 56.
His son, Matthew, described his father as “the life and soul of the party – including the ones he wasn’t invited to”.
“He was a family man, he loved his wife and children very much,” Matthew told uniteEXTRA. “He was a man of incredible charisma – he was the sort of guy that if you met once you never forgot him. He was the centre of our whole world. He was my hero – and I’ve said time and time again that I am who I am because of his influence.”
Like Hannah, Matthew spoke of the pain of grief during the pandemic.
“I don’t think I will be able to grieve properly until all of this is over – both the state of the pandemic as it is and the subsequent fall-out afterwards,” he said. “We’ve been forced to handle grief in an isolated fashion which has been incredibly difficult. I remember standing in the funeral home with my mum and not being able to hug her which was torturous, and I know that a lot of other people have experienced the same.”
Matthew on his dad, Unite member Ian Fowler. Ian was 56
“He was a man of incredible charisma – he was the sort of guy that if you met once you never forgot him. He was the centre of our whole world. He was my hero – and I’ve said time and time again that I am who I am because of his influence”
‘Circling the void’
Rajith Chandrapala, a Unite member and London bus driver who drove the 92 bus in Ealing, was on the eve of retirement when he succumbed to coronavirus last May. He was 62 years old.
His daughter Leshie described her father Rajith as “so funny, so warm and really kind”.
“He was really connected to everyone around him. He was so comfortable in his own skin that so many people just gravitated towards him – he was always the centre of attention at parties,” she told uniteEXTRA. “He played the guitar, loved to sing and dance and wrote poems too. He was very wise but wore it lightly.”
Despite it being almost a year since her father died, Leshie says she still struggles to process her grief.
“I can’t tell you how excruciatingly painful those days were when was in hospital – it felt like hell,” she said. “Hell is a place on earth and that was hell. I was pleading to all the gods to bring him back to me. It’s coming up to my dad’s one year anniversary but I still feel like I’m just circling that void of that great loss to our family.
“My dad wasn’t just a statistic – he was a living, breathing human being with his own hopes and dreams and ambitions, with lots of love and lots family and friends he’s left behind.”
The most painful part for Leshie, she said, is the fact that her father’s death – and so many others – could have been prevented. “It’s very painful to think that my father need not have lost his life – better protection could have meant that he would still have been here with us today,” she said. “I have lots of questions about why he died and why so many bus drivers and other workers have died of Covid.”
Leshie on her dad, Unite member Rajith Chandrapala. Bus driver Rajith was 62
“I can’t tell you how excruciatingly painful those days were when he was in hospital – it felt like hell. Hell is a place on earth and that was hell. I was pleading to all the gods to bring him back to me. It’s coming up to my dad’s one year anniversary but I still feel like I’m just circling that void of that great loss to our family”
Justice fight continues
Matthew, Leshie, Hannah and her sister Tasha are only four of the many thousands of Covid bereaved who are now demanding answers to those very questions.
These brave young people, who met with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey at the Covid Memorial Wall on Workers’ Memorial Day in April, are speaking out to ensure they and their loved ones secure justice through a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic – and to ensure loss on this scale never happens again.
Matthew, who is one of the co-founders of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, highlighted the importance of a public inquiry.
“I would like the government to think carefully over what’s happened over the last year – I would like to see as many MPs as possible walk this wall and take in the scale of the impact this pandemic has had,” he said. “I ask them to think carefully about what we can do to prevent any of this happening again – not just in the wake of Covid-19 but in preparation for any future world events like it. What can we do now that would go towards saving an infinite amount of lives?”
Just days after uniteEXTRA spoke to Matthew, Hannah and Leshie at the Covid Memorial Wall on Workers’ Memorial Day, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the government would pursue a statutory public inquiry as the bereaved families have long called for.
But the prime minister said the inquiry wouldn’t begin until the spring of next year, which the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said was ‘simply too late’. And despite repeated requests, as of writing, Boris Johnson has refused to meet with the bereaved families.
And so the fight for justice continues. Hannah, Matthew, Leshie and the thousands more bereaved families, united in grief and anger, are determined to continue campaigning – for a fair and urgent public inquiry, and for the National Covid Memorial Wall to be made permanent.
Hannah explained why making the wall permanent was so vital. “This wall should be made permanent because grief will now be a permanent feature of 156,000 families’ lives,” she said. “I will live my life permanently not having a dad, my future children will permanently not have a granddad. Why shouldn’t a memorial wall which isn’t political – it’s 156,000 hand-painted hearts – why shouldn’t it be made permanent?”
As Unite continues to work closely with the bereaved families in their campaigning, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey urged everyone who can to visit the wall.
“It’s a highly emotional experience and it’s also here for us not only to remember the dead but also fight for justice,” he said. “Although this wall is full of love, it also brings for me an element of anger,” he added. “How many of these 150,000 lives could have been saved if the government had acted quickly enough on a whole host of different issues that we urged them to do such as PPE provision? We need this wall to become a permanent memorial and we need a full and urgent public inquiry so that the questions that these bereaved families still have are answered. It’s the only way that they’ll get closure.”
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary
“Although this wall is full of love, it also brings for me an element of anger. How many of these 150,000 lives could have been saved if the government had acted quickly enough on a whole host of different issues that we urged them to do such as PPE provision?”
Watch the video here:
video by Martin Scanlon