Why we don’t remember pandemics

While wars are endlessly memorialised in the West, the non-narrative and morally complex nature of a pandemic mean it is rare to come across a memorial to its victims, much less a monument recalling the heroism of health workers.
covid memorial
National Covid Memorial Wall of Hearts, Westminster, London, UK. Credit: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo.
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On the eve of his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden held a candlelit vigil at the Lincoln Memorial to remember the victims of the coronavirus pandemic. By January 2021, some 400,000 Americans had died of Covid-19 and after one of the most rancorous presidential elections in history Biden wanted to signal a change of political tone. Standing in front of the Reflecting Pool on the Mall, surrounded by 400 lights representing the US casualties, Biden urged Americans to put their differences to one side. 

‘To heal we must remember,’ he said. ‘Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all whom we lost.’

Since then, there have been further moments of silence — most notably on 12 May 2022, when the United States passed the milestone of one million Covid deaths, prompting Biden to order the stars and stripes to be flown at half-mast on Federal buildings. But, at time of writing, there is no permanent US national memorial to Covid-19. Nor, despite numerous proposals by artists, architects and bereaved groups, has any other country seen fit to commission a national memorial to the pandemic. It is as if, rather than looking into the Reflecting Pool and remembering, we have collectively drunken the waters of Lethe.

Why this should be so is puzzling, given the global sweep of Covid-19 and the way coronavirus has disrupted social life and traditional mourning practices. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, for every Covid death, approximately nine surviving Americans will have lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child. Using the current estimate of 1.1 million US deaths, that’s equivalent to nearly 10 million grieving Americans. Worldwide, Covid has claimed the lives of six times that number, leaving nearly 600 million people mourning the death of a loved one globally.

Numbers of this order are difficult to grasp. As Albert Camus writes in his 1947 novel, The Plague, they are ‘just a mist drifting through the imagination.’ One of the functions of memorials is to provide a canvass for the imagination so that the individual and collective nature of these losses can be visualised and preserved in public memory. In the case of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, this is achieved by listing the names of all 58,000 who died or went missing in the conflict. By contrast, the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall makes no reference to individuals who perished in the First World War but derives its mnemonic power from the symbolism of an empty tomb.

But while wars are endlessly memorialised in Western culture, it is relatively rare to come across a memorial to the victims of a pandemic, much less a monument recalling the heroism of health workers who have perished on the front lines of humanity’s recurrent battles with pandemic pathogens. For example, despite killing more than 50 million people worldwide, there are no contemporary memorials to the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza pandemic anywhere in Europe or North America. Nor, with a few notable exceptions, have those who perished in the Spanish flu been memorialised since. Memorials to the fourteenth-century Black Death and the outbreaks of plague and cholera that swept Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are similarly rare.

Why this should be the case is unclear, but appears to be connected to the fact that epidemics and pandemics are natural events largely outside of human agency and control, and as such do not lend themselves to compelling moral narratives. As the memory studies scholar Astrid Erll puts it in a recent collection interrogating ‘the forgotten and unforgotten’ Spanish flu of 1918-1919: ‘Who are the perpetrators if the flu is caused by mutations of string of RNA? What could the moral of the story be if victims are claimed randomly?’ 

Another consideration is that while wars are able to draw on a familiar suite of heroic symbols and commemorative repertoires, pandemics have not been sufficiently mediated in our culture, leaving them outside what Koselleck calls the ‘space of experience.’ Without such pre-mediation, collective memory struggles to find a consistent shape or form, hampering the ability to incorporate ‘lessons’ for the prevention of future pandemic crises into the present. 

Arguably, one reason we were so poorly prepared for Covid-19 and the lockdowns that attended the pandemic is that we had failed to pay sufficient heed to how societies had resorted to similar measures at other times and places. Quarantines are a tried-and-tested response to outbreaks, one that has changed little since 1377 when Dubrovnik banned travellers from plague-infested areas entering the city. Yet when, in January 2020, we saw pictures from Wuhan of patients clamouring for medical treatment, we could not imagine that lockdowns would be needed to prevent hospitals in Europe or North America being similarly overwhelmed. 

We need to remember that experience to avoid making the same mistake in future. This is particularly important at a time when we are beset by multiple new crises, including a war in Europe, and politicians appear eager to draw a line under the coronavirus pandemic even as we experience a fifth wave of infections. But it is difficult to remember, let alone heal, when societies remain divided over the lessons of the first wave and cannot agree whether public health measures, such as testing and face masks, are needed going forward.

In June, Britain began the process of learning lessons by convening a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. Among those giving evidence will be Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, the activist group behind the National Covid Memorial Wall on London’s South Bank. Comprised of 180,000 red hearts — one for every British victim of the pandemic — the wall has become a pilgrimage site for bereaved families from across the UK but has yet to be officially sanctioned by the government. 

No doubt some will object that is too soon to commemorate Covid-19 while the pandemic is ongoing; there is disagreement as to how it should be remembered and whose voices should be accorded precedence. But as the experience of the Holocaust demonstrates, remembering is also an ongoing process, one that needs to be renewed by each generation. The best chance of Covid-19 avoiding the same fate as the Spanish flu is to begin that process now.

Mark Honigsbaum

Mark Honigsbaum is a writer and journalist specialising in the history and science of infectious disease. A regular contributor to The Observer and The Lancet, his books include a global history of malaria and a social history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Living With Enza, which was nominated for the Royal Society science book of the year in 2009.

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