Burying the impact the pandemic had had on me was something I was definitely guilty of. Perhaps it still would be, but for chance exposure to a particular song, at a particular moment. I first heard Alt-J’s Get Better in my Spotify Release Radar (we have since purchased the full The Dream vinyl before you nag me about supporting artists) while I was at the supermarket. I rushed home mid-song, because, honestly, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the end without bursting into tears.
It still has that effect on me. I am yet to get through a single play without sobbing. Just when you think you’re OK, great art has a marvellous way of flagging up that something is wrong. Throughout the various lockdowns, infection spikes, stumbling vaccination rollouts and new variants, I had been worried, but whenever I was asked how I was doing, it was ‘fine’, ‘good’, or ‘can’t complain.’ For all the close-calls and other ailments, I did not catch Covid-19. Many other people had been much less fortunate. Millions would not see the other side of this event at all. I don’t think I really ever took the time to think about what I was going through though.
Alt-J’s lead singer Joe Newman wrote the song by blending two projects. The first emerged from an improvisation he sang to his partner, Darcy, back in 2018 – “Get better, my Darcy / I know you can” – a variation of which forms the song’s chorus. The second was a chord progression he composed during lockdown, while thinking about the many people who were mourning remotely as funeral attendance was prohibited.
In a press statement on the song, Newman commented, “Whilst the direct events described are fictional, I believe – or I hope – that it’s emotionally the most honest song I’ve written.”
Certainly, it is hard to dispute that statement – the empathy and emotion throughout the lyrics are raw and complex. The duration of the song charts the course of the singer’s grieving process: at first, it describes listening to recordings of their partner for comfort, while they are in hospital; later this becomes an ICU, where staff smuggle a birthday card from the narrator and it rests “under your pillow.” As the song progresses, the singer’s optimism fades, knowing the partner will recover becomes hoping. Extolling the heroism of the front-line workers nursing their lover contrasts with a later exhibition of confused hostility, expressed at firefighters attending a car accident. This might also mirror a transition many others have been through – clapping for the efforts of health workers at the behest of the government; but subsequently becoming aware the state employing those workers neglected its duty to try and keep our loved ones safe throughout the pandemic.
The song is accompanied by an equally heart-breaking music video. Based on a concept from Newman, directed by Stefanie Grunwald, the stunning 8-bit animation adds another layer of vibrant emotional potency – particularly in the piece’s climax. A black cat has skirted the frame of each scene; it has been present at each step of the singer’s journey. In the final moments, they invite it to walk through the window – symbolic perhaps of their determination to finally confront and process the emotional turmoil of the pandemic. The singer changes up the chorus a final time; “Get better. I know I will.”
So, what about this experience brought out such an outburst of emotion from me? A strange thing I have noticed, both in my work with Indy Film Library, and as a general viewer of film and television, is there is a reluctance to address the pandemic. The production cycle continues to churn on, but the same old motifs are being recycled as if there isn’t a colossal public trauma to be addressed.
Being confronted in fiction by what other people lost during the pandemic might have struck more of a chord than the emotionless statistical churn of the news cycle ever did. Perhaps this kind of illustration is what’s needed to strike an empathetic chord with those of us who are desensitised to the cold and aloof media coverage of a traumatic event. It helped me realise what I might have lost – what I still might lose if – as looks likely – society refuses to learn any lessons from all this. I have been lucky enough to see out the last two years in a loving relationship; I have avoided the worst isolation felt by some through quarantine, as well as the bereavement felt by others. But it might not have gone that way for me – and I would be a fool to think my life were bullet-proof come another global contagion.
Acknowledging the grief, the terror, that thoughts like that bring up, is going to be an essential part of processing this event – and preparing for another. Collectively, meanwhile, confronting our emotional baggage is similarly key to avoiding further disasters like Covid-19: and that’s what makes audio-visual experiences like Get Better incredibly important. Artists must be willing and able to talk about what has happened to us.
Learning not to forget
The determination of world leaders to put the pandemic (and their failures to address it) out of mind and return to their historic priorities of money-laundering and war-mongering will inevitably see them try to bury the long-term consequences of the pandemic. The 6 million dead on their watch, the countless individuals left with debilitating illnesses even after the virus subsides. Being fine and dodging our emotional responses to trauma is going to play into this.
Painting over the trauma of the coronavirus in this way will only serve to build a toxic legacy. Ignoring the Spanish Flu after it subsided, moving on, and paying it no mind, certainly didn’t help the world after 1918. Despite having a death toll higher than the First World War, no attempts were made in Britain to commemorate the event, to process it or learn from it. When future crises emerged, this left the country emotionally and physically underprepared – so that even after the advent of the NHS, thousands more people died in the influenza pandemics of 1957 and 1968.
The underfunded healthcare infrastructure of the modern world is still groaning under the weight of Covid-19. Meanwhile, as people are forced back into unsafe workplaces for the sake of economic normality, the population has swiftly moved to normalise the large daily mortality rates of the on-going outbreak. If you are not inclined or empowered to challenge your boss or government on the matter, how else could you go back to business as usual?
But in the long-run, failing to reckon with Covid-19’s impact will likely have massive consequences in the coming decades. Burying the emotional baggage of the pandemic will ultimately serve to excuse the elite that refused to act early to save lives, when it seemed economically inconvenient. It will enable that same group of powerful people who sacrificed the lives of your friends and family for their own comfort to do so again. So, as painful as it might be, we have to reckon with our bereavements, face our losses head on, and remember – even as we are nudged to move on – if we are to truly Get Better.