What do communities choose to remember and what do they choose to forget? The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920, the most vulnerable being between 20 and 40 years old. The First World War killed 17 million. And yet the pandemic had almost no place in the collective memory. There are no important monuments to him, nor a celebrated body of literature around him. Laura Spinney, in her book Pale Rider, suggests that it was because the Spanish flu was global in scale and so limited in time (most deaths occurred within a few months in 1918 and 1919) that the catastrophe did not have a similar effect. kind of importance to the first world war. The war may also have seemed more translatable into a tragic narrative: an evidently man-made disaster, as opposed to the “natural” catastrophe of disease. Although if Covid-19 has taught us something, it is to what extent the disease is determined by politics, culture and the economy as well as by “nature”.
The Covid-19 pandemic is clearly very different from the Spanish flu. There are already calls for permanent monuments, including for San Pablo’s cathedral in London. This is absolutely understandable. People have put mourning for their loved ones on hold, out of necessity. The normal rituals that help channel pain – those rites, religious or otherwise, that involve the physical and surrounding presence of family and friends – have been snatched away. There is a deep human yearning for something tangible, something that people can rally around. And there is a good-hearted desire to honor those many, in different walks of life, who put themselves in danger to save or serve others.
However, caution is desirable. As the months go by and the world faces increasingly grim anniversaries, it is clear that there is much to digest about this catastrophe. Blockades in the UK may be on the decline, supposedly for the last time. But the pandemic will continue in many ways even when intensive care units have been emptied: Britain, and much of the world, will face its own form of Covid for years to come. There are also accounts to happen. It is clear that there have been, in the UK and many other countries, suffering and deaths that could have been avoided if better decisions had been made.
Running to erect stone and bronze sculptures is premature when events are so stark. Some of the best recent memorials have been evanescent. One thinks of Jeremy Deller’s obsession We are here because we are here, which marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with the appearance of silent young men, dressed as soldiers from the First World War, in public places. The best permanent monuments have been highly allusive and open, such as Rachel Whiteread’s Vienna Holocaust memorial, its form projected from the library shelves that face inside. For the moment, the commemorations of this pandemic are impermanent, delicate and transitory. They don’t need to be less sincere, meaningful, and memorable for that.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism