As ‘stay at home’ warnings fade from memory and we’re told we need to ‘learn to live with COVID’, it’s easy to forget the pandemic’s frightening early days ago. two years. Then kisses, hugs and handshakes were fraught with danger and, panicked by images from Italy of intensive care wards full of elderly patients, we rushed into supermarkets to clear the aisles of bleach and disinfectant.
Of course, there had been precedents: in 1918, there was a similar panic when hospitals were flooded with Allied troops whose lungs had been compromised by the “Spanish Flu”. In response, several US cities have banned large public gatherings and passed public mask ordinances, while Australia has imposed quarantines on soldiers returning from Europe. But these measures were far from universal. For example, New Zealand did not attempt to quarantine returning troops.
The fact is, before COVID, entire cities had never been locked down at once and never before had social distancing been enforced on such a scale – and for such a long period of time. It was a remarkable achievement, one that few experts thought possible before the pandemic.
But the coronavirus pandemic was also unprecedented in another way. For while we have learned to keep our distance from others, lest they become unwitting carriers of the virus, there has also been an explosion of virtual social connections. Through Zoom, Facebook and Twitter, we were able to “see” our friends and family and offer words of comfort, even if we couldn’t touch them and wipe the tears from their eyes.
It’s hard to say how this will affect the memory of the coronavirus pandemic. From the moment Prime Minister Boris Johnson realized COVID was threatening to overwhelm the NHS, he strove to frame the pandemic as a crisis akin to war. But while war memorials may rely on a familiar suite of symbols and rituals, the same cannot be said for pandemics.
For example, despite the deaths of more than 50 million people worldwide, there are no contemporary memorials to the 1918-19 Spanish flu in Europe or North America. Moreover, with one or two notable exceptions, those who perished in the Great Flu pandemic have not been commemorated since. As Guy Beiner, historian of modern memory, explains in a new collection revisiting the 1918-19 pandemic, “the Great Flu is essentially a place of forgetting, a place of social and cultural oblivion”.
It’s also hard to find meaning in a natural phenomenon that lacks clear heroes and villains. “Who are the authors if the flu is caused by mutations in an RNA chain?” asks memory studies researcher Astrid Erll in the same collection. “What could be the moral of the story if casualties are claimed at random?
However, for those who have lost close family members to COVID and who will not soon forget their grief – and the government mistakes that contributed to their trauma – there is an urgent moral story to tell, an action-packed story. This story is written in red ink on the National Covid Memorial Wall, an unauthorized ‘people’s memorial’ on Albert Embankment adorned with 160,000 hand-drawn hearts, one for each British victim of the virus.
Designed during the lockdown by COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a patient-activist group that organized online, the wall is a vivid example of how social media and connective digital technologies are helping to remember the pandemic in a way that would have been inconceivable in previous centuries. And this is not the only example. The Anglican Church must also adapt its rituals and traditions to the digital age: hence St Paul’s Cathedral’s Remember Me project – an online book of remembrance containing the names of thousands of COVID victims.
The result is a new politics of memory, one in which activists, with the support of religious and moral leaders, are increasingly able to dictate what form pandemic memorials should take and whose memories must be highlighted.
Despite Johnson’s repeated invocations to the spirit of the blitz, we weren’t all in the same boat. Indeed, while most of us were observing social distancing rules, the Prime Minister and his Downing Street staff were holding social gatherings in apparent breach of lockdown rules.
History suggests that pandemics do not end when politicians tell us they are over, but when they become objects of cultural oblivion. Yet for many of us, there can be no end to the pandemic as long as questions about who is responsible for the death toll remain unanswered and the coronavirus continues to claim lives.