International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD) this year is unlike any that we have marked before, with an untold number of workers across the globe having succumbed to Covid-19 after having contracted it at their workplace or because of work.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that some 15,000 working age people died from coronavirus, leaving families traumatised by devastating loss. Now, many of these families have joined together to ensure that their loved ones are remembered – and that other families are not made to endure the ineffable pain that they’ve suffered.
On Workers’ Memorial Day, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and other leaders from the trade union movement joined some of these family members at the National Covid Memorial Wall in London adjacent to St. Thomas’ Hospital, which is covered in individually hand-painted hearts commemorating each life lost in the pandemic.
With more than 155,000 hearts now painted on the wall, the memorial stretches nearly a mile long and takes a full ten minutes to walk.
‘Grief is now a permanent feature of our lives’
Hannah Brady, 25, (pictured below) traveled from Wigan with her sister Tasha to reiterate their call to make the wall permanent and for the government to agree to a full public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
Hannah and Tasha lost their father, Shaun Brady, a factory worker in Wigan and Unite member, when he was only 55 years old. It is believed he caught the virus at work.
Hannah described her father as both a dedicated worker at the Heinz factory who hadn’t had a day off sick since Hannah was three years old, a loving a family man and someone was dedicated to his community.
“My dad was really passionate about charity, and he was passionate about youth football; he’d been a volunteer referee since he was 18, he taught free after school football clubs for children of all ages and abilities,” Hannah told UniteLive.
“He was a keen baker, although some of it wasn’t quite edible but we still ate it! He was really into travelling and finding his own independence. He renewed his passport at 54 and we had no idea that he would die at 55.”
Hannah described the trauma of her family not being able to visit her father, who spent 42 nights in hospital on a ventilator in a coma, and not being able to grieve in the normal way, with very restricted, socially distanced funerals.
“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 said the case for making the Covid Memorial Wall permanent was clear.
“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?”
‘My dad was my hero’
Matthew Fowler, who is one of the founders of a campaign group for bereaved families which helped create the Covid Memorial Wall, lost his father, Ian Fowler, when he was just 56 years old.
Matthew (pictured above) described his father Ian, who was a semi-retired design engineer at JLR Castle Bromwich and Unite member, as “the life 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 UniteLive. “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 a very isolated fashion which has been very 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 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.”
‘We’re still circling the void of loss’
Leshie Chandrapala — who lost her father, Rajith Chandrapala, a London bus driver and Unite member — agreed.
“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 have died of Covid. That’s why I’m calling for a public inquiry on Workers’ Memorial Day.”
Leshie (pictured above) believes the Covid Memorial Wall must be made permanent because it connects all those families to the great loss the that they’ve endured.
“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,” she told UniteLive.
Leshie described her father Rajith, who was just on the cusp of retirement and drove the number 92 bus in Ealing, 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. 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 will be dad’s one year anniversary next week but I still feel like I’m just circling that void of that great loss to our family.”
Love and anger
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey praised the bereaved family members for their bravery in speaking out and said Unite would be supporting them all the way in their fight to make the wall permanent and to secure a full public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This wall is an incredible memorial and one that I’m here to pay my respect to,” Len told UniteLive after walking the wall (pictured below, with Hannah and Tasha). “I’m here to congratulate the bereaved families and their campaign for putting this together and also to offer my condolences to all of the people who have lost loved ones.
“I urge everyone here in London to come visit this 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 added. “And that justice here is fighting for a public inquiry.
“Although this wall is full of love, it also brings for me an element of anger,” Len continued. “How many of these 156,000 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 public inquiry so that the questions that these bereaved families still have are answered. It’s the only way that they’ll get closure.”
You can support the campaign to make the National Covid Memorial Wall permanent by donating here.
By Hajera Blagg
Pics by Mark Thomas