The Crassness of a Covid Cenotaph

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“The world will not be the same again”, echo the grave voices of politicians and scientists, filtering down into the safe bubble of our homes. Physical confinement has created a kind of mental immunity to the tough realities of coronavirus, but the crisis continues to wreak havoc, and people are still watching their loved ones die, not in person, but over Facetime. When everything is over and the damage it has caused begins to settle in, how will the victims be remembered?

Social media tributes, charity events, plaques, and memorials are effective and important ways of memorialising the dead. But for some reason the vision of Boris snipping the ribbon on the “Covid Cenotaph” and smiling grimly at the cameras, or a rainbow-drenched concert that sees Coldplay collaborating with Miley Cyrus, doesn’t quite cut it.

Boris snipping the ribbon on the “Covid Cenotaph” and smiling grimly at the cameras, or a rainbow-drenched concert that sees Coldplay collaborating with Miley Cyrus, doesn’t quite cut it

Most historians agree today that the 1918 Spanish Influenza killed more people than the first and second world wars combined, yet it is only lightly touched history textbooks. (It was not until 2008 that graves were dug up and analysed to help scientists understand how we should prepare for a future pandemic.) Despite its catastrophic effects, history has forgotten the influenza, and as a result, no one was prepared for Covid-19. 

It will now be more important than ever for nations not to ignore the truth of what happened but to address the scars that this pandemic will inevitably create. A country that is uncomfortable with expressions of grief and ignores its own ordeals reflects behaviour of a generation that we ought to have left behind. The stiff upper lip approach to personal bereavement, so different to the communal grief of war, is outdated and unproductive, and societies cannot consign these pandemics to the margins of history anymore. 

The origin of the 1918 influenza was unknown, but the finger of blame was quickly pointed at Spain

Physical constructions are effective: the AIDS memorial quilt created by the NAMES project in 1985; the Holocaust memorial in Berlin; our own Cenotaph in Whitehall – these are all powerful ways of memorialising the dead. Monuments offer the public a strong symbol of remembrance and provide a salve for the pain inflicted on those left behind. However, many of those who have lost loved ones will want justice on a greater level: to seek the truth behind this tragic event and cement it to the history’s narrative.

The origin of the 1918 influenza was unknown, but the finger of blame was quickly pointed at Spain. As countries come together to search for a vaccine for coronavirus, there is the possibility of a new global society as well as a national one. Rather than turning on each other as we did then, increasingly interconnected communities across the world can collaborate to memorialise the victims of coronavirus. 

Our historical tendency to forget pandemics seems to be reckless act of global amnesia

At the same time, there is blood on the hands of governments across the world who could have done more to prepare for coronavirus. Perhaps this is what will motivate nations to remember this pandemic. If we want to go beyond processing trauma through physical constructions to seal the victims into history, we need to ensure that the narrative does not gloss the truth. It cannot be told from a political angle, but from a truthful, universal, global perspective.

Our historical tendency to forget pandemics seems to be reckless act of global amnesia. Investment into preventing another global pandemic will be prolonged as long as we are continually reminded of those who died. Our children must be taught about Covid-19 just as we were taught about World War One. We need to leave this pandemic behind refusing to leave the victims the way those victims of the 1918 pandemic were left as a historical footnote.

Image: Marina Mestres Segarra (at the National War Memorial)

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