How are we going to Memorialise the Pandemic?

The case for a COVID Memorial Day

Image: George Lewis Romain/The NHS Spitfire project (web/insta/donate here)

I nearly cried in line at the grocery store last week. All it took was spotting a headline that noted the annual ANZAC Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon — which drew a crowd of 78,113— had broken the record for largest crowd in the world since the pandemic began. It was a staggering reminder that, even as Indian hospitals were running out of oxygen, Melbourne had somehow, against all the odds, beaten Coronavirus with nothing but two prolonged lockdowns. The tears were tears of gratitude at our good fortune as well as grief for the lost time and lost lives.

Nothing but two prolonged lockdowns. They didn’t feel like nothing. At the time, they felt interminable and terrifying. I remember the day we hit 687 cases in a day; it was a shock that pushed me and my colleagues into a sort of fugue state, barely able to work for the rest of the day. The limit of one hour outside the house for exercise, the mandatory masks, the curfew and the 5km radius all contributed to a leaden and ever-present sense that this would never be over. But they also felt — ironically enough, as I spent the time in near-isolation — like I was part of something much, much bigger than myself. It’s a big thing for a historian to say, but maybe it even felt like what I went through was part of history.

But it has ended, at least in Australia, and at least for now. While we have occasional quarantine breaches and the vaccine program is way behind schedule, we are sufficiently COVID-free to have an unmasked crowd of nearly 75,000 at a football match. Australia is a lucky country. Our anthem reminds us that we are girt by sea, and for once the tyranny of distance has worked in our favour. As horrifying as it was, the local peak of 692 cases in a day pales in comparison to the numbers elsewhere.

The water may have receded but the tide of COVID has left jetsam and detritus in its passing. We still wear masks on trains. There are social distancing markings all over the floors of shops. We still work from home at least two days a week. But none of us are glued to the daily numbers anymore and strangely, despite feeling interminable at the time, 2020 now feels like it barely even happened.

The ANZAC Day headline reminded me that the feelings haven’t receded with the tide. In the UK, where the effects of the pandemic cut both broader and deeper, the phrase ‘tsunami of mental illness’ is making headlines. We are grappling with loss and grief on a scale that very few people now alive in the developed world have had to grapple with in their lifetimes. Another prominent UK psychiatrist has likened it to the Second World War.

Is it any wonder that the Second World War is so often brought up in discussions of COVID? The War was probably the last time so many people were all united by their relationship to a historical disaster of such scale. In the UK in particular, memories of the war are frequently mobilised to make sense of the pandemic. It’s most obviously encapsulated by the NHS Spitfire, which perfectly combines two iconic British institutions of the mid-century — the war effort and the welfare state. The 99-year old war veteran Tom Moore, who raised US$30m for the NHS by doing 100 laps of his garden in lockdown (and was knighted for his efforts) is another great example.

The connection between the NHS and the war effort is in hindsight an obvious one. Both soldiers and front-line health workers put their lives in danger in service of the nation, and neither of them really had a choice in the matter. Both of them did so for a democratic vision of a state that gave equal care and consideration to all of its citizens. If one is worthy of heroic commendation, then both are. “Clap for our Carers” drew on traditions of war commemoration and might become a model for how we remember the sacrifice of health workers if we decide to memorialise the pandemic response in future.

As further evidence of the connection, consider the efforts of the Australian Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) to commemorate ANZAC Day under lockdown. In a very similar move to “Clap for our Carers”, the RSL publicised a “light up the dawn” campaign in which those wishing to commemorate Australian servicemen could stand in their driveways holding a candle. Consider also the brilliant German government ads, shot, edited and scored like a war veteran interview in a memorial documentary, in which the joke hinges on the fact that these apparent heroes actually did very little to deserve our thanks. We seem to have already defaulted to war commemoration as a way of representing the present crisis. It’s fitting that the record-breaking crowd at the Essendon-Collingwood game was for a war memorial day.

As the COVID crisis unfolded throughout March last year, like many other historians I found myself wondering about the ’flu pandemic of 1918–1921. It’s shocking that the “Spanish Flu” has been so totally overshadowed by WWI in our collective memories. It killed almost as many people as the War and lasted almost as long, but it was like people rediscovered it anew under lockdown as a way to explain their circumstances or predict outcomes.

The Black Plague left its mark on the very few texts we have from the 14th century. The Vision of Piers Plowman still calls it the “pestilence tyme” nearly thirty years later, and the Decameron chronicles the stories told by Italian nobles in self-enforced rural lockdown. But our Flu memoirs have been obscured by endless war memorials. The memory of COVID-19 has the potential to unite us across national, class, gender and racial boundaries, and for once there’s no ‘enemy’ to discreetly erase from the memorial services once the war is over. It could be like Armistice Day but with less complicated politics.

A COVID Memorial Day could be a thank you to the frontline carers who saved us. Perhaps, in time, with enough attention paid to their self-sacrificing work, we might even start to give health care workers the sorts of financial compensation they deserve, and stop treating their jobs and the system that employs them as a disposable asset or luxury for the wealthy.

A COVID Memorial Day might claw back some space for the res publica or the common wealth. It could perhaps revive our sense that there is a collective world that we all inhabit and that ties us together, and that our fates are collectively entangled regardless of personal circumstances.

A COVID Memorial Day could also be a recognition of the toll the pandemic took on us all: grief and loss of life and health, certainly, but also isolation, disconnection and separation from loved ones. It could be a celebration of the togetherness we had to sacrifice to bring it under control, a day off work to have picnics and parties, go to plays and films and art galleries and play sport — all the things we lost, albeit temporarily. And it could be a day for both grief and happiness at the same time, with none of the discomfort of the arguments about whether memorial days celebrate or commemorate war.

And lastly, a COVID Memorial Day could help us flesh out the big grey nothing time of lockdown, and secure the hardships of 2020 in a positive fashion in our memories so it doesn’t feel like a lost or wasted year.

After all, remembering is not really about the past, it’s about the present. If we’re going to need to deal with a tsunami of mental health problems, we need to remember why we are facing it in the first place.

I hope one day I’ll stand in a grocery queue and tear up at the sight of a headline about an AFL game played in front of a packed crowd for COVID Day, tears this time of pride in our health system, gratitude to our health care workers, and relief and joy at life regained.

In writing this piece, I reached out to George L. Romain to use his magnificent image of the NHS Spitfire above. George very kindly agreed, and also pointed out that you can still donate to the NHS Spitfire project:

“We are attempting to completely cover our photo-reconnaissance blue Spitfire PL983 ‘L’ in hand written names! For us to accomplish this we need your support, as the names we are hand writing onto the Spitfire will be nominated by you! It can be your own name or that of a loved one, a member of your family, a friend or a kind neighbour. You can now become a part of the NHS Spitfires story by nominating a name to be hand written on the aircraft’s airframe.

Each name nominated will also help us together as a nation say thank you to the NHS by contributing to the NHS Charities Together (Registered Charity Number 1186569) To nominate a name you simply need to visit our JustGiving page and donate a minimum of £10 along with the name of the person and the reason for the nomination in the donation comment (instructions for donations included in JustGiving page story). We will be adding the names throughout the Summer and sharing updates via our social media pages as the blue outer-surface of the Spitfire slowly begins to be covered in the names of our nations local heroes!”

I’m a firm believer in universal healthcare, and I wish governments would fund it fairly. When they won’t, citizens have to step into the breach. This is a very worthy cause. If you feel you can, please donate.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.